Pink Floods the Marketplace for Breast Cancer Awareness Month


New Balance Flatiron Store

New Balance’s Lace Up for the Cure collection, which donates five percent of proceeds to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, was on display at the brand’s Flatiron store. Photo: Zach Hyman.

Dressed in clothing and accessories from New Balance’s Lace Up for the Cure line, 13 women walked an impromptu runway at the sportswear company’s Flatiron store on Thursday to supportive cheers from the crowd. The women had all been diagnosed with breast cancer, some many years out from their diagnosis, one yet to begin treatment.

New Balance’s Lace Up for the Cure line is just one example of clothing, products, or promotions put out by retailers during October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Available year-round but promoted heavily in October, the 10-year-old line ranges from $3.99 shoelaces to $149.99 sneakers emblazoned with a magenta “N,” and the company donates five percent of sales to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the largest breast cancer foundation in the United States, with a minimum yearly donation of $500,000. That translates to sales of about about 5,500 pairs of their most popular walking shoe, the $89.99 New Balance 860. In 2011, the company exceeded that amount with a donation of $1.2 million.

The exact amount of money raised annually by all pink ribbon campaigns is difficult to determine, because of differences in the scope of various campaigns and in the percentage of the purchase price that is given to research. Ford’s limited-edition 2008 Mustang with a Warriors in Pink package, which according to US News and World Report had a base price of $19,650, not including the pink package, is a high-profile example. For each car sold, Ford donated $250 to the Komen foundation, while proceeds from Warriors in Pink’s clothing and accessories sales since 2006 are over $3 million.

To put the fundraising in context: The Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs appropriated $120 million dollars for breast cancer research in 2012. In fiscal year 2011, the National Cancer Institute alloted $625,060,000, 12.4% of its total budget, to breast cancer research.

In 2011, Komen alone invested over $68 million dollars to support research grants. But that same year, the documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc.,” brought media attention to the fact that some companies carry out pink ribbon campaigns without being transparent about how much money is donated, or to what organization.

The documentary’s producer and executive director, Ravida Din, said that though individuals in large corporations are committed to the cause, the company’s primary goal is to sell product. “Companies like to promote themselves as good citizens,” she said. The color pink is also a conscious marketing decision. Din said,  “Companies package it as something very soft, inviting and warm, and studies have shown that pink is seen as non-threatening… it’s everything that the disease isn’t.”

Zoë Christopher, office manager and resource liaison of Breast Cancer Action, a feminist breast cancer awareness advocacy group, agrees. “Pink is associated with soft, sweet and pretty – there is nothing pretty about burning a women’s chest with radiation, poisoning her body with highly toxic chemicals in chemotherapy… or cutting off her breasts,” she said.

Think Before You Pink, a project of Breast Cancer Action, demands that companies clearly advertise how their pink ribbon campaigns work and where the funds are going. Christopher said that all pink ribbon marketing isn’t going towards the cause. “’Awareness’ has not ended the epidemic, but it’s made corporations very rich. And we will never shop our way out of the problem,” Christopher said, “The pink ribbon is considered one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history – marketing campaigns – not solutions to a terrible health crisis.”

Janice Zaballero, Founder and Executive Director of New York’s Breast Treatment Task Force (BTTF), a grassroots organization that provides breast cancer screening and treatment free of charge to low-income women, is concerned that the recent negative attention on pink ribbon campaigns could hinder fundraising. “If you feel the need to criticize a few select examples, that’s fine,” she said, “but the overall blanket of negativity that’s being cast toward companies could be harmful for those raising significant funds, especially grassroots [organizations].”

She cited BTTF’s current partnership with BR Guest, a restaurant group that owns many New York restaurants, like Dos Caminos and Blue Water Grill, and creates special desserts during the month of October. Seventy-five percent of the price of the desserts goes to the BTTF, and 100 percent of “Round Up” donations added to the bill go directly to the BTTF. In October 2011, the program raised $46,000.

Acting Executive Director of Susan G. Komen for the Cure Greater New York City Vern Calhoun said pink products or promotions can make a difference all year. “Having that in the marketplace throughout the year is one more way to remind women that they need to look after their own breast health,” he said of the New Balance Lace-Up for the Cure line.

Jennifer Keddy, associate PR manager at New Balance, agrees with Calhoun. “It’s not one month a year that people are affected by breast cancer,” she said. She said having the line modeled by survivors is significant, and that the event “is a good way to highlight Breast Cancer Awareness Month and highlight the real people.”

The last woman on the catwalk at New Balance’s event was Jane Hildebrandt, a marathon runner four years out from her initial diagnosis. She was wearing a dress designed by Jacqueline Quinn and made entirely of materials from New Balance’s 860V2 sneaker. “It’s not about the dress,” said the designer, “it’s about what the dress represents.”

In January of 2012, the organization decided to pull funding from Planned Parenthood, a nationwide provider for sexual health. Had the decision not been reversed in response to public outcry, it would have denied the Planned Parenthood hundreds of thousands of dollars that would go towards breast health education and screenings. Still, Hildebrandt remains supportive despite the controversy.  “I turned to them when I needed direction, so I had to pay it forward,” said Hildebrandt of supporting Komen.*

Judy Albert, who is 23 years out from her initial diagnosis at age 43, has completed 18 marathons for the cause and loves participating in awareness events. “Today, the attitude about cancer has changed 180 degrees. People talk about it,” she said. She supports the color pink to promote awareness. “I think it was the right color to pick for us … it says hope and life,” she said.

Beth Markowitz is five years out from her diagnosis at age 28. She wasn’t always vocal about the cause, but said that her feelings changed after she realized that she was becoming a source of strength for others in her support group. “I really enjoyed being a voice for young women who had been diagnosed,” she said.

But even a supporter draws the line at some pink products. Hildebrandt, who modeled the finale dress, said that some pink products aren’t to her liking and cited a Bersa handgun with pink handgrips. “I’m all for awareness, but I think it needs to be done tastefully.”

Din said that whatever the product, people should think about how our culture has commoditized the disease.  “It’s about thinking critically,” she said, “I think the public needs to ask themselves how much money actually goes to breast cancer research.”

*Clarification: This article was revised to reflect the fact that the Susan G. Komen Foundation did reverse its decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood.