The Modern Loss Book is now available for pre-order!

Anyone who’s followed my journey online or off since February 21, 2012, might be aware that the 48-hour period encompassing my brother’s death anniversary and my stupid birthday has been a fraught and complicated time. I wrote about this in an essay titled “Deathday Birthday” that will appear in the Harper Collins published Modern Loss book, which you can pre-order today on Amazon. Publication date is Jan. 23, 2018.

The book’s been blurbed by Mindy Kaling, Stephen Colbert, Meghan O’Rourke, Anna Sale, Dave Isay and Lisa Ling, among others, which is pretty damn cool. Fans of frank, irreverant, honest writing on death, grief and loss won’t want to miss this anthology.

Another thought

I don’t particularly want to weigh in any further, other than to read and promote the work of the writers who were featured in the Spring 2017 issue of Write, but I do also want to suggest that the best take home message for me in this debacle has been that if you do not have the capacity to take on careful, thoughtful due diligence towards every aspect of a role for which you are volunteering, particularly if it is a board structure, you must not take it on. Equal failures are committed by “good” people who are “too busy” for due diligence, as are committed by people who are willfully malicious or grossly negligent. Be very honest with yourself and lean out, not in.

Further information from the Writer’s Union:

Statement on Write magazine editorial

Dear Hal et. al.,

I am writing to express my discomfort, disappointment and displeasure at the “Writer’s Prompt” note, “Winning the Appropriation Prize,” which was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Write magazine.

I am struggling somewhat to find the words to respectfully articulate my reaction upon seeing the column: at the most generous interpretation it is clueless and thoughtless; at worst, it is offensive and insulting to the many writers featured within the page; it undermines any attempts at space-making or celebration of the writers featured within the pages, and it marks Write magazine as a space that is not safe for indigenous and racialized writers.

As a member of the board, I would have strongly objected to this piece had I seen it prior to publication. In fact, I could have: Gaeby did send me a pdf of the issue on May 1; I was unfortunately overscheduled for the past month with a number of back-to-back creative deadlines and major work priorities. I did not read the pdf. I was also unable to join the board meeting last week. I very literally finally paused to raise my head for air this evening; scrolling my Facebook feed in a coffee shop I saw a link to Alicia Elliott’s thread on Twitter ( Not having reviewed the issue prior to putting my name to the Chair’s Report is a serious lapse in judgment and ethics, and I believe that I cannot in good conscience continue with the board.

I am in agreement with the criticisms circulating on social media. I can’t, should not, and will not speak for any indigenous writer, but what I do attempt to do, in my life and in my work, is to listen to others who do not move through the world with my level of privilege. What I have read, what I have learned, and what I believe is the fact that Canada has a long history of settler-colonialism and of cultural and physical appropriation. I vehemently disagree with the notion that cultural appropriation is not real – it exists and it causes real harm. Further, Canada is “exhaustingly white and middle class” not because white writers are afraid to write stories they don’t “know,” but because white writers don’t get out of the way and make space for the multitude of stories to be told by those who aren’t white and middle class. If I can go further – and I am myself white and middle class – we’re not the centre, and we need to stop behaving as such.

For this issue, I provided the name and contact information of a young writer of my acquaintance, whose work ended up being featured in the issue. I now find myself in the position of having to go back to that person and apologize for having put them into a situation where their work and their very subjectivity has been undermined by the note that introduces the issue.

As a board and as an organization, we need to be mindful of what frames are put on the work of marginalized voices, and we need to ensure that when we are reaching out to marginalized voices that we are building a respectful space for their work.

We need to do better.

Nikki Reimer



To clarify, there was a planning meeting for this special issue that I did attend some months back, (some time in the fall), also attended by the guest editor, who is an Indigenous writer. The guest editor and the editor worked together to select the writers and pieces. The advisory board never does that. The purpose of the board, as far as I’ve known, is to weigh in on ideas, offer ideas, and guidance, and suggest topics and writers. We never read or approve any of the pieces before the issue comes out.

There was another regular board meeting last week that I was unable to attend, my first that I couldn’t make in a year and a half of sitting on the board. I don’t know what was discussed at that meeting. It would usually be notes for the issue to follow. It would be very atypical for the board to read and approve every piece in the magazine before it is published. We never see the note from the editor before the magazine comes out.

This is not to be defensive, but to clarify what the process has been. As a youngish writer when I joined the board it did not occur to me to suggest or insist that the advisory board have approval on the content of the magazine prior to publication.

In this instance I am indeed particularly at fault because I took on the position of board chair and had written the yearly chair report for the end of April. The magazine coordinator then reached out to me to let me know that this spring issue needed to be included in my report. Because of timing and deadlines, the issue wasn’t out yet. She sent it to me for my reference, and sent me a suggested wording that encapsulated the names of the writers included in the issue. At the time (May 1) I was under the gun on various deadlines and I accepted the coordinator’s suggested wording. I would have raised the alarm had I read the editorial note then, and it is my error and failure that I did not, but it’s possible and likely that the issue was already off to the printers and  possibly the mail, at that point.

In any case, the failure to review the issue in its entirely prior to filing the report is mine and mine alone.

I have resigned from all of my volunteer and board positions.

Need actors for April 22 performance

I am looking for three two one actor to perform a five minute commissioned work at the Swallow a Bicycle 10 year party the evening of Saturday, April 22
  • Title: Trigger Warning
  • Subject matter: The piece is about rape and rape culture, and does describe acts of sexual assault and violence. The performer would need to be comfortable performing the subject matter
  • Spoken piece for four performers
  • To be performed at the Swallow a Bicycle 10 year party the evening of Saturday, April 22
  • Performance time and call time TBA
  • Rehearsal time TBA — this weekend if we can get coordinated, otherwise evenings next week. Please provide your availability.

Performers will need to be available for 1-2 rehearsals in advance of the performance. All performers will be paid. I am looking for a diverse range of gender expressions and racial identities but given the piece am looking for primarily non cis men.

Please contact:
Nikki Reimer

#95Books 2016 Edition

I didn’t make the goal this year, but in my defense I had a few health issues, I changed jobs and abodes, and various dumpsters fires had my attention in the latter half of the year.

  1. Bluets — Maggie Nelson
  2. Jane: A Murder — Maggie Nelson
  3. Sonnets from the Portuguese — Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  4. 100 Days — Juliane Okot Bitek
  5. Teaching my mother how to give birth — Warsan Shire
  6. Description — Arkadii Dragomoschenko
  7. Cinema of the Present — Lisa Robertson
  8. The Picture of Dorian Gray — Oscar Wilde
  9. Drift — Caroline Bergvall
  10. Diversion — George Murray
  11. Mayor Snow — Nick Thran
  12. Incognito: the secret lives of the brain — David Eagleman
  13. Even this page is white — Vivek Shraya
  14. Whirr & Click — Micheline Maylor
  15. Pound @ Guantanamo. 20 poems: 2005 -2014 — Clint Burnham
  16. Love in a handful of dust — Kirk Ramdath
  17. Human Tissue — Weyman Chan
  18. Heaven’s Thieves — Sue Sinclair
  19. Magyarázni — Helen Hajnoczky
  20. Waiting Room — Jennifer Zilm
  21. Sitting Shiva on Minto Avenue by Toots — Erin Moure
  22. Ceremonies for the dead — Gwen/Giles Benaway
  23. For Your Own Good — Leah Horlick
  24. My Body is Yours — Michael V. Smith
  25. Shrill: Notes from a loud woman — Lindy West
  26. Small Beauty — Jia Qing Wilson-Yang
  27. Injun — Jordan Abel
  28. U Girl — Meredith Quartermain
  29. Throaty Wipes — Susan Holbrook
  30. The Gift of Fear — Gavin De Becker
  31. Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and what we can do about it — Kate Harding
  32. This Is Happy — Camilla Gibb
  33. Scattered Minds: The origins and healing of attention deficit disorder — Gabor Mate
  34. When Breath Becomes Air — Paul Kalanithi
  35. Serpentine Loop — Elee Kraljii Gardiner
  36. Garments Against Women — Anne Boyer
  37. Waterloo–City, City–Waterloo — Leanne Shapton
  38. Congotronic — Shane Book
  39. Talking to the Diaspora — Lee Maracle
  40. Double Teenage — Joni Murphy
  41. And I Alone Escaped To Tell You — Sylvia D. Hamilton
  42. Friendly Fire — Danielle LaFrance
  43. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy — Erin Wunker
  44. I, Bartleby — Meredith Quartermain
  45. For Love and Autonomy — Anahita Jamali Rad
  46. How Festive the Ambulance — Kim Fu
  47. Myrmurs: An Exploded Sestina — Shannon Maguire
  48. The Best Kind of People — Zoe Whittal
  49. Slick Reckoning — Ken Belford
  50. How to Draw a Rhinocerus — Kate Sutherland
  51. Tomboy Survival Guide — Ivan Coyote
  52. Contrary Infatuations — Dymphny Dronyk
  53. A Complicated Kindness — Miriam Toews

#95Books 2015 Edition

1. A Pie Plate Pilgrimage — William Loewen
2. All My Puny Sorrows — Miriam Toews
3. For Today I Am A Boy — Kim Fu
4. She of the Mountain — Vivek Shraya
5. Mauve Desert — Nicole Brossard
6. The Promise of Happiness — Sara Ahmed
7. Motherland, fatherland, homelandsexuals — Patricia Lockwood
8. I Am Here — Ashley Opheim
9. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha — Tara Brach
10. Something You Were, Might Have Been, Or Have Come To Represent — Jay Winston Ritchie
11. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory — Caitlin Doughty
12. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition — Glen Coulthard
13. Mental Traps: The Overthinker’s Guide to a Happier Life — Andre Kukla
14. Rain of the Future — Poems of Valerie Mejer. Edited by C.J. Wright
15. A Grief Observed — C.S. Lewis
16. Wet Land — Lucas De Lima
17. Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream — Kim Hyesoon translated by Don Mee Choi
18. Lost Cat — Caroline Paul. Illustrated by Wendy McNaughton
19. Protective Immediacy — Rod Smith
20. In Memory of My Theories — Rod Smith
21. Deed — Rod Smith
22. The Answer to Everything — Elyse Friedman
23. The Fast — Hannah Weiner
24. Sometimes They Sang — Helen Potrebenko
25. I Am Woman — Lee Maracle
26. Steve’s Vinyl — Cathy Busby
27. Lizard Telepathy Fox Telepathy — Yoshinori Henguchi
28. Loitersack — Donato Mancini
29. When Everything Feels Like The Movies — Raziel Reid
30. Coeur De Lion — Ariana Reines
31. Assembling the Morrow: A Poetics of Sleep — Sandra Huber
32. The Inconvenient Indian — Thomas King
33. Red Juice: Poems 1998 – 2008 — Hoa Nguyen
34. Broom Broom — Brecken Hancock
35. indigena awry — annharte
36. We Should All Be Feminists — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
37. Sin Eater — Angela Hibbs
38. Down — Sarah Dowling
39. Citizen: An American Lyric — Claudia Rankine
40. The Age of Briggs & Stratton — Peter Culley
41. A More Perfect [ — Jimmy McInnes
42. Touching feeling: affect, pedagogy, performativity — Eve Kosofky Sedgwick
43. ASHINEoVSUN — John Barlow
44. Hammertown — Peter Culley
45. Parkway — Peter Culley
46. Asbestos Heights — David McGimpsey
47. Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra — Elena Johnson
48. Transmitter and Receiver — Raoul Fernandes
49. Dear Leader — Damian Rogers
50. The Year of Our Beautiful Exile — Monica Kidd
51. Jabbering with Bing Bong — Kevin Spenst
52. The Purpose Pitch — Kathryn Mockler
53. Get Me Out Of Here — Sachiko Murakami
54. Killing Kanoko — Hiromi Ito, translated by Jeffrey Angles
55. Rue — Melissa Bull
56. Hastings-Sunrise — Bren Simmers
57. Their biography: an organism of relationships — kevin mcpherson eckhoff
58. Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent — Liz Howard
59. Multiple Bippies — Colin Smith
60. Page as Bone Ink as Blood — Jonina Kirton
61. Exercises in Lip Pointing — Annharte
62. Where the Words End And My Body Begins — Amber Dawn
63. Safe Telepathy — John Barlow
64. Aliens & Anorexia — Chris Kraus
65. Enter the Raccoon — Beatriz Hausner
66. From The Mouth Of The Whale — Sjon
67. When Earth Leaps Up — Anne Szumigalski
68. Swim — Marianne Apostolides
69. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night — Heather O’Neill
70. How To Appear Perfectly Indifferent While Crying On The Inside — Jay Winston Ritchie
71. A Little Death Around The Heart — Marie Darsigny
72. Seldom Seen Road — Jenna Butler
73. Us Conductors — Sean Michaels
74. Blind Items — Dina Del Bucchia
75. Toward. Some. Air — Ed. by Fred Wah and Amy De’Ath
76. If our wealth is criminal then let’s live with the criminal joy of pirates — Jacob Wren
76. The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser — Ed. by Miriam Nichols
77. Radical Acceptance — Tara Brach
78. Shopping Cart Pantheism — Jeanne Randolph
79. Out of Psychoanalysis: Ficto-Criticism 2005 to 2015 — Jeanne Randolph
80. Unworthy — Anneli Rufus
81. The Physiology of the Employee — Honore de Balzac
82. Amblyopia — Jena Osman
83. A Young Recruit — Jean Day
84. Trilogy (The Walls Do Not Fall; Tribute to the Angels; The Flowering of the Rod) — H.D.
85. The Semiconducting Dictionary (Our Strindberg) — Natalee Caple
86. The Politics of Knives — Jonathan Ball
87. She Tries Her Tongue — M. Nourbese Philip
88. The Outer Harbour — Wayde Compton
89. True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in your Own Awakened Heart — Tara Brach
90. Wendy — Walter Scott
91. Muse & Drudge — Harryette Mullen
92. The Missing Pieces — Henri Lefebvre. Trans. by David L. Sweet
93. The Underachiever’s Manifesto: The Guide to Accomplishing Little and Feeling Great — Ray Bennett
94. F*ck Feelings — Michael I. Bennett, MD and Sarah Bennett
95. Indivisible — Fanny Howe
96. Squeezed Light — Lissa Wolsak
97. The Animated Reader: Poetry of “Surround Audience.” Ed. by Brian Droitcour
98. Martin John — Anakana Schofield
99. Sideshow Concessions — Lucas Crawford
100. Rom Com — Dina Del Bucchia & Daniel Zomparelli
101. Kapusta — Erin Moure
102. A fallen angel — kate zambreno
103. Emanations: Fluttertongue 6 — Steven Ross Smith
104. Endangered Hydrocarbons — Lesley Battler
105. Ardour — Nicole Brossard translated by Angela Carr
106. No Work Finished Here: Rewriting Andy Warhol — Liz Worth
107. We Oughta Know: how four women ruled the 90’s and changed Canadian music — Andrea Warner
108. N-W — Zadie Smith
109. Undercurrent — Rita Wong
110. In the Dog House — Wanda John-Kehewin
111. Cable Factory 20 — Lytle Shaw
112. Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change — Pema Chodron
113. The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop — Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Nate Marshall, eds.
114. Unholy Ghost: writers on depression — Nell Casey, ed.
115. The Argonauts — Maggie Nelson
116. Stop Endometriosis and Pelvic Pain — Andrew S. Cook
117. Chelsea Girls — Eileen Myles #95books

#95 Books 2014: an analysis


First a disclaimer: I’d been intending to pull some of my demographics into handy chart format prior to seeing Tanis MacDonald’s analysis of her own 2014 reading list on Facebook. If you are friends with Tanis, I recommend her thoughtful “What I Read in 2014” posts.

I pulled my own stats by copy-pasting my numerical list into Excel, categorizing and sorting the titles, and using the chart wizard to pull pie charts.

Genre notes

It was important to me to make the #95Books goal this year, so it’s interesting to examine how the numerical goal affected which books I chose to read. This year I read 103 books in total, and I specifically chose shorter books in order to meet my target. 62% of the books I read this year were poetry, 25% non-fiction, and 11% fiction. The fiction books were all short story collections; I read no novels this year. I read two anthologies, and one book by French collective Tiqqun. I read one graphic novel (the superb Shoplifter by Michael Cho) and one play (Adam Seelig’s challenging and entertaining Parts to Whole).

I didn’t count nationality, a number that MacDonald reviews in her count, largely due to laziness and a five-day headache. If I feel motivated later I will go back, research, and add this.

Additional fun facts on content

  • I only reviewed two books this year. I would like to at least double this for 2015.
  • Books I read in anticipation of a book club meeting that I did not end up attending: 2, or 1%
  • Buddhist philosophy texts: 2, or 1%
  • Books about cat behaviour: 2, or 1%
  • Books about emotional eating and weight loss: 2, or 1%
  • Weight I gained in 2014: 12 lbs
  • Books partly or wholly “about” or informed by grief, death and loss; or read as part of my exploration into grief, death and loss: 11, or 11%
    • The Trauma of Everyday Life — Mark Epstein
    • the place of scraps — Jordan Abel
    • Language and Death: The Place of Negativity — Giorgio Agamben
    • children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections — Renee Sarojini Saklikar
    • Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother — Helen Humphreys
    • Designated Mourner — Catherine Owen
    • MxT — Sina Queyras
    • Janey’s Arcadia — Rachel Zolf
    • Freak of Nurture — Kelli Dunham
    • Un/Inhabited — Jordan Abel
    • One Crow Sorrow — Lisa Martin
  • Change in eyeglass prescription: I now require progressive lenses

Demographical analysis

I was quite surprised that the male / female breakdown was so even: 50% women to 48% men. I would have assumed that I’d read a greater majority of books by women. This underscores the importance of record keeping and number counting to challenge one’s assumptions.

The other numbers are definitely disappointing with regards to being an informed ally:

  • 14% of books were by persons of colour; 83% were by non-persons of colour
  • 16% of books were by LGBTQ-identified persons; 82% were by non-LGBTQ-identified persons, or were unknown to me
  • 2% of books by First Nations authors were by the same First Nations author

Reading goal for 2015: more diversity. Conscious diversity. Seek out more indigenous writers.

Fave picks and highlights to follow.

#95Books: 2014 Edition

I hit, and surpassed, the #95Books challenge for the first time ever. Herewith, my list. Analysis to follow.

  1. The Dip — Seth Godin
  2. The Trauma of Everyday Life — Mark Epstein
  3. The Polymers — Adam Dickinson
  4. Twin Tongues — Claire Lacey
  5. decomp — Stephen Collis & Jordan Scott
  6. Hellgoing — Lynn Coady
  7. Glossolalia — Marita Dachsel
  8. Feeding the Hungry Heart — Geneen Roth
  9. the place of scraps — Jordan Abel
  10. The Rainbow Stage-Manchuria — Steve Noyes
  11. Multitudes — Margaret Christakos
  12. The Antidote — Oliver Burkeman
  13. Language and Death: The Place of Negativity — Giorgio Agamben
  14. children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections — Renee Sarojini Saklikar
  15. Difficult Mothers — Terri Apter
  16. Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother — Helen Humphreys
  17. Tuft — Kim Minkus
  18. This is Importance — Gregory Betts
  19. You Exist. Details Follow — Stuart Ross
  20. King’s(Mere) — Nathan Dueck
  21. Against Happiness — Eric G. Wilson
  22. Undark — Sandy Pool
  23. The Vestiges — Jeff Derksen
  24. Spare Parts Plus Two — Gail Scott
  25. Words the Dog Knows — J.R. Carpenter
  26. Animals Make Us Human — Temple Grandin
  27. Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl — Tiqqun
  28. alive at the center: contemporary poems from the pacific northwest (Ooligan Books)
  29. Errata 5uite — Joan Retallack
  30. The Sad Phoenician — Robert Kroetsch
  31. Metropolis 16-29 — Robert Fitterman
  32. Sixty Odd — Ursula K. LeGuinn
  33. Writing Surfaces: selected fiction of John Riddell — derek beaulieu and Lori Emerson, Eds.
  34. How does a single blade of grass thank the sun? — Doretta Lau
  35. Designated Mourner — Catherine Owen
  36. Gypsy Guitar — David McFadden
  37. Sinuous — Lydia Kwa
  38. Sestets — Charles Wright
  39. Begin With the End in Mind — Emma Healey
  40. MxT — Sina Queyras
  41. THOU — Aisha Sasha John
  42. School — Jen Currin
  43. The Monument Cycles — Mariner Janes
  44. Internodes — Ken Belford
  45. Corked — Catriona Strang
  46. From the Poplars — Cecily Nicholson
  47. Thrum — Natalie Simpson
  48. The World Afloat – MAC Farrant
  49. Meadow — Tom Raworth
  50. This Isn’t The Apocalypse We Hoped For — Al Rempel
  51. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance — Franco “Bifo” Berardi
  52. Here in There — Angela Carr
  53. How Poetry Saved My Life — Amber Dawn
  54. Secession — Chus Pato / Insecession — Erin Moure
  55. As Water Sounds — Sunnylyn Thibodeaux
  56. abcedarium — Dennis Cooley
  57. Dirt of Ages — Gillian Wigmore
  58. Canoodlers — Andrea Bennett
  59. Backup Singers — Sommer Browning
  60. Growing Up Jung — Micah Toub
  61. bp: beginnings — bpNichol
  62. Polyamorous Love Song — Jacob Wren
  63. Moon Baboon Canoe — Gary Barwin
  64. Mercury — Ariana Reines
  65. I’m Not Scared Of You Or Anything — Jon Paul Fiorentino
  66. He’ll — Nathan Dueck
  67. Lose It Right — James Fell
  68. Parts To Whole — Adam Seelig
  69. Bad Feminist — Roxane Gay
  70. Air Carnation — Gaudalupe Muro
  71. Reality Bites Back — Jennifer Pozner
  72. North of California St. — George Stanley
  73. Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Story Together — Pamela Slim
  74. Mercenary English — Mercedes Eng
  75. Fortified Castles — Ryan fitzpatrick
  76. Why Poetry Sucks: an anthology of humourous experimental Canadian poetry (Insomniac Press)
  77. Seva — Sharanpal Ruprai
  78. Testament — Dennis Lee
  79. Janey’s Arcadia — Rachel Zolf
  80. When Things Fall Apart — Pema Chodron
  81. can’t and won’t — Lydia Davis
  82. Cinema of the Present — Lisa Robertson
  83. Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness — Chogyam Trungpa
  84. Cat Sense — John Bradshaw
  85. Hidden City — Jeremy Stewart
  86. Men Explain Things to Me — Rebecca Solnit
  87. YAW — Dani Couture
  88. Bourbon & Eventide — Mike Spry
  89. Freak of Nurture — Kelli Dunham
  90. Afghanistan Confessions — Victor Enns
  91. Massacre Street — Paul Zits
  92. Shoplifter — Michael Cho
  93. Skein of Days — Sonja Greckol
  94. New Tab — Guillaume Morrissette
  95. A Pretty Sight — David O’Meara
  96. Humiliation — Wayne Koestenbaum
  97. Un/Inhabited — Jordan Abel
  98. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains — Nicholas Carr
  99. Posh Lust — Louis Cabri
  100. The Outer Harbour — Wayde Compton
  101. Technocreep: the surrender of privacy and the capitalization of intimacy — Thomas P. Keenan
  102. Happy Cat, Happy You — Arden Moore
  103. One Crow Sorrow — Lisa Martin

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