Why some breast cancer ‘awareness’ campaigns are getting flak

Marketers are reevaluating their efforts amid backlash over reports some organizations selling ‘pink ribbon’ merchandise have skimped on relaying the proceeds to research and treatment.

A campaign against cancer seems like an easy PR win.

This October, sports teams are bedecked with fuchsia paraphernalia, and the campaign festooning retailers with pink ribbons is turning 25. The anniversary has many reevaluating whether “awareness” is a big enough goal for cancer advocates.

The activist organization Breast Cancer Action (BCAction) has launched a campaign to call out corporations that use breast cancer to sell merchandise while pocketing the lion’s share of the gross sale.

Global News reported:

The organization launched the Think Before You Pink project with the goal of “peeling back the pink ribbon” and helping people determine if they’re buying a product that will actually benefit a breast cancer charity.

It guides consumers to ask four key questions when buying a pink ribbon product:

1. Does any money go to support a breast cancer program? If so, how much?

2. Which organization will get the money and how will they spend it?

3. Is there a maximum donation cap and how will the consumer be able to tell when it has been met?

4. Does the item you’re purchasing expose you or a loved one to toxins linked to breast cancer? How is the company ensuring it is not contributing to the epidemic?

This isn’t the first time advocates have criticized organizations using breast cancer awareness in marketing campaigns. The NFL was panned for how little of its dedicated merchandise actually went to cancerresearch.

The league has updated its “Crucial Catch” campaign for 2017, addressing the criticism that early cancer screenings are an ineffective and outdated tip for combatting the spread of cancer. In partnership with the American Cancer Society, the NFL has pivoted educating its audience about cancer risk factors with an app.

It’s broadening its scope to cover other forms of the disease, as well:

Estee Lauder, which was first to use the now ubiquitous pink ribbon, has heard calls for change.

Marketing magazine wrote:

According to Yvonne Ng, senior marketing manager, Estee Lauder Companies, “Rethink Pink” stemmed from the notion to prompt consumers to rethink the efforts that have been made to raise awareness about breast cancer. It also reminds consumers to assess how far breast cancer research has come over the last 25 years and inform them that there is an optimistic outlook in finding a cure.

Whether or not these companies have done enough to satisfy activists, it is important they recognize that cancer is a deeply personal subject fraught with triggers and traps.

Here are three pitfalls to avoid while talking about cancer awareness this “pinktober”:

1. Don’t prey on patients’ hope.

Marketing deals in hope, miracles and magic bullets. It’s important for marketers to remember that cancer can’t be cured with a few choice phrases.

NPR wrote:

[H]ospital ads Wallace […] tug at emotions, just like other advertising that is trying to win over consumers. With increasing health care costs and choices, patients are shopping around for care. These days […] hospitals have to sell themselves.

Patients with a dire prognosis can feel that positive marketing is a “slap in the face.”

NPR interviewed a patient who didn’t want to hear about hope:

Lori Wallace is not going to live forever. Before cancer, she says, she would have been attracted to the messages of hope. But now, she says, she needs realism — acceptance of both the world’s beauty and its harshness.

2. Be transparent about who gets the money.

After the NFL was criticized for pocketing its awareness merchandise proceeds, the campaign is explicit about what funds are going to charity and how those funds fight cancer.

The NFL shared on its campaign page:

The NFL does not profit from the sale or auction of cancer awareness-identified merchandise. Money raised through Crucial Catch supports the American Cancer Society’s Community Health Advocates implementing Nationwide Grants for Empowerment and Equity (CHANGE) program. This program promotes health equity and addresses cancer early detection disparities through community based cancer prevention programs that increase access to necessary cancer screenings.

They go on to list cities that have received grants, providing another layer of transparency.

3. Update campaign goals to reflect current science.

Although early detection and prevention has been central to the pink ribbon campaign over the last 25 years, science suggests early detection is not a cure-all for cancer patients.

In op-ed for the Guardian, BCACtion’s executive director wrote:

In 2009, when the NFL started Crucial Catch, the evidence was clear that mammography screening had been overhyped as a solution to breast cancer. In that year, the US Preventive Services Task Force changed their recommendation that women have mammograms every one to two years starting at age 40 to every two years starting at age 50.

If cancer awareness and treatment are important to your organization, make it a priority to get the facts right.

Readers, how are you talking about cancer awareness this month? Please share your stories and suggestions in the comments section.

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