Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

I like… my breast cancer activism with substance

pinkribbon.jpgThis time of year, the leaves are turning red and yellow and orange, but just about everything else is blushing pink. That’s right: it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month! The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation has raised more than $1.5 billion for breast cancer research since it started in 1982, and $55 million a year comes from corporate marketing partnerships (including the special edition KFC bucket). We’ve covered these questionable ‘pinkwashing’ practices before. And this October, there’s a new wrinkle to breast cancer activism: half-hearted online awareness campaigns.

The iconic pink ribbon debuted in the early 1990s, and was popularized after the Komen Foundation handed ribbons out to participants in the 1991 Race For the Cure in New York City. Corporations soon discovered that affixing the symbol on their product not only helped their image, but their profit margin as well. In 2006, Campbell’s Soup saw its sales double when it offered pink versions of its iconic cans. In exchange, the company donated $250,000, or a mere 3.5 cents per pink can, to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. When it comes to buying pink products, it’s important to read the fine print: a company may have a cap on the amount of money it’ll donate, and some do not specify what organization the donations are going towards.


October isn’t just about selling beribboned yogurt cups, though; it’s also about raising awareness, however indirectly and questionably useful that may be. Earlier this month, a meme began coursing through the newsfeeds of Facebook. As part of an effort to raise awareness about breast cancer, women wrote about (the unrelated matter of) where they like to keep their purse. Notably, they omitted details about said purse, resulting in proclamations susceptible to misinterpretation such as “I like it on the couch” or “I like it on the backseat of my car”. Can’t we do a little better than this? How about sharing a link to clinical trials for breast cancer that are recruiting volunteers, or an online support forum for women who’ve been diagnosed? It doesn’t take that much more effort than titillating your friends about where you “like it”.

In a recent takedown of online activism in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell touched a nerve amongst socially conscious, educated Millennials when he suggested that the revolutionary step of turning your Twitter avatar green doesn’t actually do much for Iranian protestors. But there must be some way to harness social media and corporate power for more than hollow platitudes. At this point, it’s safe to say most people are aware that breast cancer is a problem; what comes next requires something a little more substantive.

Image by MesserWoland via Wikimedia Commons

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