The Problem with Pink

Breast cancer awareness efforts have been wildly successful in one way and, research suggests, a great failure in another.

On the success side, the movement has mobilized a truly stunning range of companies to brand their products in ways that raise awareness of breast cancer. Here are a few examples.

Fresh cookies (with pink chocolate chips):

Cream cheese:

Cat food:


Golf balls and tees:

Pots and pans:


Grape tomatoes:

I think it’s safe to say that breast cancer marketing has changed the meaning of the color pink in the U.S.

Unfortunately, as a new paper [PDF] in the Journal of Marketing Research suggests, the association of breast cancer with the super-girly color pink hurts more than helps with actual breast cancer prevention behavior.

Stefano Puntoni and his colleagues found that when women were exposed to gender cues such as the color pink, they were less likely than women who had not been primed with a gender cue to think that they might someday get breast cancer and to say that they’d be willing to donate to the cause. Pink, in other words, decreased both their willingness to fund research and the seriousness with which women took the disease.

Puntoni explains this finding with a common psychological tendency: When people are faced with a personal threat, they tend to subconsciously go on the defensive. In this case, when women are exposed to information about breast cancer at the same time that they are reminded that they are vulnerable to it, they subconsciously try to push away the idea both that they’re vulnerable and that breast cancer is something they, or anyone, needs to worry about.

This raises questions about the decision to merge health care concerns with marketing. Marketers specialize in getting their product–in this case breast cancer–into public awareness. But while they may be effective in getting us to buy things, they may not actually be doing our bodies any good.

Moreover, marketers specialize in competition, getting one product attention instead of another. While breast cancer awareness may be good, the wild marketing success overshadows other health-care issues that also affect us. I did a bit of research.

According to the CDC (2007 is the latest available data), cancer is not the leading cause of death in the U.S.: It’s heart disease. Granted, cancer is a close second. In 2007, 616,067 people died of heart disease and 562,875 died of cancer. But not breast cancer, all cancers. People die of heart disease at a rate 10 times higher than breast cancer.

And if you want to prioritize cancers, more people are diagnosed with prostate cancer than breast cancer and more people die from lung cancer (158,859) and colon, rectal, or anal cancers (53,319), than breast cancer (40,589) (Cancer Statistics Review [PDF], data from 2008).

So why such an emphasis on breast cancer? The massive social movement organization behind it is one reason. I think, also, the body parts and the presumed cause of disease matter. Do we have less sympathy (and would, therefore, a similar marketing campaign be less effective) for lung cancer because we think that lung cancer patients are to blame for their own disease? Would we find colo-rectal-anal cancer-themed cream cheese somehow less appetizing? Or prostate cancer-themed gum? Are those parts of the body simply less iconic?

“Save the poop chute” just doesn’t have quite the same appeal?

I’m not trying to suggest that raising awareness of and funding research for breast cancer isn’t important, but I am interested in the strategies by which being “against” breast cancer is (literally) sold to us, whether these strategies work, and what (and who) we’re sacrificing in the meantime.


  1. Great article. :]

    Another problem with pink for breast cancer is, as a stereotypically “female” color, men will think breast cancer can’t happen to them.

    • P.S. I shared it on my Facebook profile/page/wall. :]

    • It can be worse than that: breast cancer fundraising events (the primary example being marathons and fun-runs, where participants run in support of those with breast cancer) may be restricted to women-only.

      Not only are these marketing campaigns potentially alienating males, but the charities indended to help people with breast cancer are telling them, not only that they can’t have the disease, but that they have no place in supporting those with the disease.

      ((To be fair, I’m in the UK; I can’t vouch for whether this continues in the US. However, the charity responsible for the nationwide ‘Race for Life’ has these rules and prides itself on being ‘the UK’s leading cancer charity’, which sets a pretty terrible example to follow.)

  2. beautifulthingfromthenorth says:

    I would buy anal cancer awareness cookies!

  3. This is a hot topic for me, someone who lives with stage 4 breast cancer. I recently posted on facebook: “. It’s long bothered me, deeply, that other cancers don’t get nearly the face time as breast cancer. It’s stupid, really, because once one cancer is cured, we’re going to be well on our way to curing the others. It’s myopic, indeed, and those who suffer and die from all other cancers most likely feel the frustration of being excluded from all the rah-rah that Komen perpetuates. Komen also doesn’t acknowledge, even at their walks (I’ve been to two) how many of us aren’t, in fact, “cured,” and such an exclusion is inappropriate and counterproductive. Additionally, their huge fundraising engine doesn’t send nearly enough money to research. What the hell would Komen do if cancer didn’t exist? it would die. I know it’s cynical to look at it from that perspective, but I think it needs to be said.”

    Additionally, when chatting with a friend whose brother died of bone cancer, I wrote: “Your brother is one of the most compelling reasons Pinktober is so egregious to me. Just because corporations can make money because breast cancer can be spun sexy (sex sells, remember?) doesn’t mean they should. It also doesn’t take away from the very real reality that cancer doesn’t choose “sexy” for its victims, and to elevate one over another because it positively affects the bottom line is not only mercenary, it’s immoral.”

  4. I also agree that all cancers deserve more attention. That’s why I’m in love with the Besties With Testies group, (a deep mad love). I also agree that breast cancer having pink as their “school color” is a little much. However I don’t mind it, my favorite color is pink so during October when all sorts of pink things come out I stock up and also support a great cause. In some ways they know pink is a popular color. It’s a wonderful marketing tactic for sure.

  5. A common misconception of Medicaid is that you get it if you’re poor. While income plays a big part in qualifying for it, it’s only part of the equation. Eligibility is based on income AND qualifying status. So you need to fit a category first – parent of minor children living with you, disabled, unemployed for longer than 18 months, pregnant, HIV+ or a woman with breast or cervical cancer. So a childless, underemployed person who fits none of these categories gets nothing, no matter how poor he or she is.

    My point, and I do have one, is that marketing, PR and politics have had too much sway over health care decisions. HIV and cervical and breast cancer have strong lobbies, so their patients are taken care of, even though they’re a minority. Single, childless person trying to make do with a part-time job in a bad economy coming down with the much more prevalent lung cancer? Sorry, you’re SOL. Well, once you’re terminal (<6 months to live) you can qualify for SSDI and Medicare, so I guess there's that to look forward to. During the miserable year I worked for MA's Medicaid program, I actually remember speaking to a woman in just this situation. She had stomach cancer, no kids and a 30-hour a week job with no benefits. Since she didn't have the marketable cancers, there was nothing I could do for her. She's probably dead now, which depresses the hell out of me.

    Marketability shouldn't decide who lives and who dies.

  6. I’m text book tomboy (athlete, mechanic, coach, bike messenger, landscaper) and I NEVER wear pink despite (Nike’s, Sears/Craftsman’s, Timbuk2’s, Apollo Precision’s) heavy handed marketing. The only time I wear pink is to make it clear I’m supporting BCA (at a function, run, fundraiser, etc). I’m not vulnerable. It’s a point of pride.

  7. Breast Cancer Action has been saying this for years with the “Think Before You Pink” Campaign. What this article and Puntoni’s research doesn’t say is that pinkwashing doesn’t just affect people’s consumer choices and lull them into a false sense of security. Unfortunately, these products very often contain ingredients that are known carcinogens. Komen has a new perfume out right now called “Promise Me,” which is, of course, pink. It also contains carcinogenic ingredients that even the International Fragrance Association has banned. Check out Breast Cancer Action’s website ( for loads of information on corporations who sell pink stuff and “care” deeply about breast cancer on one hand, while the other hand feeds consumers toxic ingredients that cause breast cancer. It’s not just that these products “may not be doing us any good,” as Puntoni’s research suggests. It’s a lot worse than that, and these companies need to be called out for their shameless hypocrisy.

  8. Cheryl Lynn says:

    I really appreciate this article. I have felt the same way about the pink campaign and it was nice to learn more about it from a similar perspective. I also thought this would be an interesting link:

    This summer in Canada it was discovered that the Canadian Cancer Society only provides 22% of it’s total raised dollars to cancer research.

  9. Watching NFL players wear pink to supposedly promote breast cancer awareness as nearly naked women on the sidelines dance and then go home to the wives they smack around and cheat on is pretty fucking annoying.

  10. My comment doesn’t have anything to do with the article, per se. However my current film “Kung Fu and Titties” (NO, it is NOT porn!) tried to donate to the “Save the Ta-Tas” cause. They refused our donation due to the title. So wait a sec,…you want to help women, but only if we use the word ‘breast’? How hypocritical. How sad.

  11. When I read the article, I was ready to defend the pink thing. But then I read the comments and realized that this has obviously hit a nerve among numerous readers. Many facts they describe may be correct, and some simply egregious, as the carcinogenic agents in products whose makers support the breast cancer awareness initiative.

    But I for one am glad that breast cancer has received the attention it does. Other cancers do exist, and they do get enough attention, simply because they often afflict males. It may not be color-coded, but the health system takes them seriously enough. Same goes for heart disease. Research shows that it is actually the women who get fewer treatments for heart disease and their outcomes are worse. For once women’s health concerns are in the lime light for an overwhelmingly female illness. Don’t take that away; just add more education about others to the list. If you don’t emphasize it, it will fade away quickly enough. And we will have to start all over again. And don’t forget it has a strong genetic component which affects future generations.

    • Other cancers do NOT get enough attention.

      There’s a vast publicity machine supporting breast cancer awareness. The pinky fight against breast cancer dwarfs all other battles merely because breasts are ‘fun’ and are now synonymous with girliness and femininity. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but to say other cancers get enough attention simply because they affect males is a grotesque distortion of the truth. The male equivalent to breast cancer is cancer of the prostate, but because it hasn’t a ‘soft’ and ‘cuddly’ image it falls way behind in the league of awareness and ‘fun runs’.

      To take a feminist stance on women’s health issues is absurd.

  12. I agree with many of the comments.

    I’d like to add that I usually don’t purchase “pink ribbon” food products because they are the exact food products that one should NOT eat if they are trying to be healthy and PREVENT cancer!

    Instead of hundreds of people walking around a track with pink ribbons… how about promoting a vegan diet (or as vegan as possible)??? I know that some people mock a vegan diet, but it is the best prevention for cancer available to us! I am not always 100% vegan myself, but I try to make the best choices I can every day and keep myself informed about what I eat, where it comes from, if it is GMO, etc…

    I will NOT buy something just because it has a pink ribbon on it!!! Especially food! I want healthy food only!!!

  13. It REALLY annoys me when I see a product I buy in a pink package with a ribbon. I will actually buy the version without the ribbon. I am not cruel. I was the caregiver for my sister who died at age 36 of Leukemia. Her comment was, “why is everything about breasts? There are other cancers too.” I am actually mostly annoyed because I have NO idea what money and what benefit the breast cancer cause is receiving from “breast cancer cream cheese.” It is also annoying that women’s breasts are so owned by the public that we can plaster the threat of losing them on every product. Also, breast cancer has “used up” a LOT of the places available to raise money. And- I think that “Save the Tatas” sums it up perfectly. I somehow feel that the pink products are not respectful.

  14. It is hard because pink is so stereotypically girly now. I don’t dislike pink. But it seems as women are reduced to little girls with breasts. If you are a girl now, the toy store only has pink (or pink and lavendar) toys for you. No more playing with red and yellow and blue leggos like I did as a girl. Women and girls are more than pink. I’m trying to describe my reaction to products. I never really thought about it until now.

  15. Pink can also be a strong color. I have been sorry to see the “girly” downgrade for pink. Girls are wonderful wild and girly should not be a put down. I am a member of CodePink, women [and men] for peace. Our male auxiliary wear pink with pride and look so masculine and sexy. My husband looks great in pink (he is a red head) and has worn it because he likes the color. Right now, tho, he is into black t-shirts. Looks great in those, too. The color the marketers use is the pale, shy color of pink (I look great in that color due to my coloring) but I am not a pale, shy person. Hot pink and all the versions of pink are so diverse and rich. Wear pink for peace. Freedom from fear and code against cancer are all fine with me. Pink cream cheese marketing kinda kill my appetite. Hmmm, good diet help, maybe. The corporate opportunists that use breast cancer to make money are typical of our corporate culture. So, use this opportunity to participate in the nearest Occupation against corporate greed and government and bring the people back to the understanding of our power. We are the 99%.

  16. Innate 1` says:

    Pink has become ubiquitous and somehow falsely synonymous with finding a cure for cancer. Nothing is further from the truth. Pink buckets of KFC? Really, hydrogenated fat laden wads of antibiotics, hormones and a chemistry lesson in what is not food? Or I forget, is it diet Coke or Pepsi that fights breast cancer? Or my all time favorite culled from the entries in facebook… a Pink Bar Crawl. Where would be do-gooders go out to raise money for breast cancer “awareness” (or whatever the Pinksters like to call it), and spend the night drinking alcohol to excess. Did it ever occur to the Pink Campaign to discourage cancer? Or, just make money off finder’s fees for delivering half million dollar fodder for the cancer machine? Total crap!!!

  17. For breast cancer, pink is fine. But in general associating pink with cancer is unhelpful. Most men wouldn’t wear pink, let alone a pink bracelet or a lapel ribbon which is itself effeminate. Cancer has become increasingly ‘girly’ with pink cancer accessories as if it were fashionable and cool to fight breast cancer, while other ‘unfashionable’ cancers don’t get a look in – we all love breasts, but not so much the prostate. Very unhelpful.

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