essays

Is it time to wash our hands of cause washing? Thoughts on Movember, Pinktober, Greenwashing, Catwashing?

I completed this piece last January for a website which then decided to move away from long form pieces. They agreed to release their rights to it so I could seek publication elsewhere. I did try to place it but then got busy with my new job, so I’ve decided to post it here because I think it’s timely and relevant. When I wrote this piece, Movember in particular did not face any public criticism, but some critiques are finding their way to the fore; recently CBC Radio’s White Coat Black Art did an excellent piece on this very topic (scroll through to 10:30). Enjoy the last days of Movember. 

Moustaches are sexy. Movember is sexy. Movember’s website is sexy. Their marketing imagery—all rugged dudes and trendy grunge fonts—is sexy, and approximately 33% of mo’ growing bros (by this writer’s unscientific estimation) are also rather sexy.

What’s not necesssarily sexy is how Movember’s stated mission to support prostate cancer and male mental health initiatives has been obscured by the hipster fun of sporting a facial hair fashion that harkens back to an earlier era.

Out of all the individuals I polled this past ‘Movember,’ mo’ bros included, not one was aware that mental health is a component of Movember’s fund- and awareness-raising initiatives. Rather, they were focused on cultivating their moustaches.

As a brand, Movember is perhaps the most wildly successful in the cause marketing sphere. As an awareness-raising tool it falls far short, highlighting some of the problems with the cause marketing sphere, a realm that encompasses cause marketing such as “pink” marketing,“green” marketing, and “blue” marketing.

Paint it pink

Peach was the first colour of breast cancer awareness, but peach ribbon creator Charlotte Haley refused to grant permission for the ribbon’s rebranding by Estee Lauder and SELF Magazine. SELF appropriated her ribbon anyway, avoiding issues of permission by changing the ribbon’s colour to pink in 1992. This incident, the birth of the breast cancer ribbon, marks the beginning of cause marketing.

Canadian Breast Cancer Support Fund (CBCSF)  founder Donna Sheehan is critical of the movements organized around cause marketing. “The advocacy is missing out of the whole movement,” Sheehan said. She sees her organization as one amongst many that are “trying to change the conversation of the dominant culture.”

Sheehan’s complaint about the dominant conversation is illustrated by a scene in the NFB documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. which contrasts the breast cancer movement’s early marches and tours of toxic industries with today’s carnivalesque runs and walks. In the film, Writer Barbara Ehrenreich notes, “We used to march in the streets; now we run for a cure.” In other words, many of the causes symbolized through the trendy ribbon, such as the red ribbon, which symbolizes AIDS awareness, the green ribbon of the various environmental movements, and even the moustaches that stand for prostate cancer and men’s mental health, are symptomatic of the “cause washing” that has overtaken how North Americans think about serious health concerns that affect millions of people yearly.

The term pinkwashing was coined by San Francisco-based advocacy organization Breast Cancer Action (BCA)  in reference to “a company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease.”

Pink Snow Tools

Particularly egregious examples of pinkwashing against which BCA has taken action within the past two years include a KFC-branded pink bucket of fried chicken (it was quickly pulled) a perfume promoted by the Komen Foundation containing two chemicals that are regulated as toxic and hazardous, and a pink hydraulic fracking rig.

Shopping for the Cure

One of the images that appears on the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation’s (CBCF) website in the rotating flash banner is a pink snowbrush. This image struck me as incongruous, and lead me to wonder about the correlations between cancer of the mammary and the need to clear one’s car of snow.

CBCF co-CEO Sandra Palmaro clarified the decision-making process for me regarding the approximately 50 national corporate and community partners who are involved with CBCF’s Shop for the Cure program.

“Each opportunity is evaluated on a case by case basis. Considerations include ensuring sufficient dollars are going to the cause, and whether the product marketing and communications are clear and transparent.”

The Shop for the Cure program contributed more than $3 million of CBCF’s $50 million+ revenue in 2011.

“The wide range of products and companies that participate in Shop for the Cure and other similar programs is a demonstration that many people connected to breast cancer want the opportunity to support their charities of choice in this way.”

Not everyone wants that particular opportunity. An evocative CBC Storify article from Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October) 2012 highlights many vitriolic public response by cancer advocates as well as individuals with the disease and their family members. One Tweeter featured in the story is Xeni Jardin, co-founder of Boing Boing and current breast cancer patient, who has been very outspoken regarding her distaste for the #pinknausea campaigns. She asked her followers to tweet “ vomit-y PINKTOBER breast cancer pink consumerism crap snapshots” to her for selected retweets of the best (or worst) examples.

Another problem with pink marketing and pink washing is the portrayal of certain rigid gender stereotypes. Not all breast cancer sufferers are women, and not all women appreciate being pinkified, feminized, prettified and softened while they undergo what is inarguably a horrific disease. The breast cancer industry is guilty of some very unfortunate examples of pun abuse —  “Breast Night Ever”— and so forth.

Writer and educator Gayle Sulik argues that there is plenty wrong with the breast cancer industry marketing machine. On her Pink Ribbon Blues blog, Sulik posits that sexy breast cancer campaigns are demeaning to women and that “the pink ribbon (has) helped to transform breast cancer activism into pink ribbon consumption.

Because sexually objectifying advertising is “an applied form of persuasion,” Sulik writes, “the ends are not likely to include active thinking about breast cancer.”

Sheehan adds, with a slight air of exasperation, “Let’s just save lives. Let’s not be cheeky and fun about it. I’d gladly give up my breasts if I thought it could save my life.”

Paint it green, paint it blue

There are some shared concerns between the work of organizations like the Breast Cancer Support Fund, which has received support from the public due to its green messaging, and more traditional environmental organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation, due to the links between toxicity and cancer. The Greenwashing Index, which rates green advertising on its website, defines greenwashing as “when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be green through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.”

David Suzuki Foundation’s Queen of Green, Tovah Paglaro, agrees that greenwashing “is a problem,” though the Foundation doesn’t keep analytical data on specific companies or products.

Paglaro would prefer that consumers inform themselves by researching both ingredients and practices prior to making a purchase.

“There’s actually quite a lot of transparency online and often not a lot attached to the product in the store,” she said.

Paglaro urged a less-is-more approach to products and services, and felt that the prevailing mood among citizens was hope rather than fatigue.

“We’re all in this together and we all want what’s best for our families, what’s best for future generations, and what’s best for us. And I think increasingly we recognize that a big part of that is seeing ourselves as part of the big picture. Whether that involves buying the right products or spending more time at home making those products or re-evaluating how we move around, how we transport ourselves and how we heat our houses, all of those things are part of that big picture.”

John Hocevar, director of Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign in the U.S., disagrees.

“As public awareness grows of the impact unsustainable fishing is having on our oceans, so has greenwashing — or, perhaps, bluewashing.”

Hocevar feels that many companies are attempting to get away with “bluewashing” their bad practices.

“Grinding up hundreds of thousands of tons of menhaden, dubbed the ‘most important fish in the sea’ for their role as food for everything from striped bass and ospreys to whales? Sustainable, says Friend of the Sea. Anything and everything from Alaska, no matter how it was caught or what the impacts are on the seafloor? Sustainable, says the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Indonesian swordfish? Sustainable, says Ocean Trust. How about farmed shrimp and farmed salmon? Sustainable, says Global Gap, despite a host of environmental concerns including reliance on wild fish for feed, antibiotics, and coastal habitat destruction. Even the Marine Stewardship Council, often seen as the most credible seafood certifier, has given their blue seal of approval to bottom trawled fisheries like hake, Pacific cod, and several others. The MSC has even certified Antarctic fisheries such as toothfish (marketed as Chilean sea bass) and krill, regardless of heavy opposition from scientists and environmental organizations.”

To the dogs! (and the cats)

What, other than good PR, or the chance to cover up unsavoury practices, might inspire a corporation to engage in cause marketing? I approached Purina, maker of pet products, for more information because they sponsor both a “green” and a “pink” program.

Paws for the Planet is Purina’s sponsorship of Evergreen  livable city charity’s Common Grounds Program. Pink Paws started as a partnership between Cat Chow and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation in 2009. It was expanded to include Purina Maxx Scoop and Dog Chow in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

For each program, Purina commits to a minimum donation, with the potential for more based on sales percentages. In 2012, Purina donated $75,000 through Paws for the Planet and $100,000 through Pink Paws.

Purina states that Paws for the Planet “helps create a better, greener world for people and their pets” and Pink Paws “is rooted in the unique support that women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer receive from their pets.”

As a pet lover myself who can testify to the emotional support that companion animals can provide in trying circumstances, it’s hard for me not to get misty eyed over something like Purina’s Pet Hall of Fame. Companion animals are great, but Purina is first and foremost a business and is primarily concerned with making money, and  well-paid communications professionals have a hand in the branding of partnerships between corporations and charities. Though these programs certainly can and do perform good works, a supporting corporation’s donation of $75,000 or $100,000 or more to a charity is still effectively a fee paid to a marketing firm.

Where branding crosses the line

There is a narrow line that all organizations must attend to when they enter the cause marketing realm.

The CBCF thinks that “the more public discussion about the issue, the greater the awareness of the distinction between meaningful cause marketing programs and companies which are simply being opportunistic. So we welcome that increased public awareness of the deep commitment of the companies who partner with CBCF.”

But on the other hand, there is always the potential for the catchy meme or sexy image to obscure the nuances of a complicated issue and preclude the possibilities for in-depth conversation. This is of course a challenge faced by organizations who are trying to promote their causes, and there are not many clear answers for how to proceed, other than to aim for authenticity, reliability, and that tricky balance between hope and a reality that’s not always pretty.

-by Nikki Reimer

3 replies »

  1. Hi Nikki,

    I’m glad you connected pinktober to Movember. Both objectify, commercialize and trivialize cancer and neither promote necessary awareness and action. Just redundant, oversimplified health promotion stuff, if any awareness at all. Both campaigns are highly disconnected from the causes. You also explain that the fun, gimmicky participation overshadows the cause. And yet people vehemently defend their participation.

    I don’t get it. Don’t people want to talk about the important issues and take action?

    I’ve read and heard many arguments from participants that the fun is justified by the funds raised and good intentions. I’ve been working hard to prove to them that raising money isn’t enough. Many participants have insinuated or accused Movember/pinktober critics like me of being angry feminists making a fuss about nothing. No.

    We need to pressure for environmental research and policy changes, increase access to screening and care, research for better treatments, etc. And where is all that money going anyway? None of this is possible without awareness and information about how to take action. And we can’t do this until we change our culture’s definition of awareness.

    Cheers,
    Ashley

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Ashley.

    I agree! Awareness is certainly not the be and end all, and in and of itself it is useless unless it leads to some real change or action.

    [My personal experiences would suggest that many people either genuinely do not want to "talk about the important issues and take action" (because it is easier and more fun to take part in gimmicky events that don't require serious research and analysis) or they may be well meaning but so busy / burnt out that throwing money at a cause at least feels like they are doing something.]

    Best,
    N.

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