Are you ready for the annual pinking of America? If it's dyeable or wrappable, it's pink: footballs and football stadiums, lunch meat packages and juice bottles, buses and beauty products.
During the media blitz every October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, thousands of products are painted pink or slapped with a pink ribbon and presented to consumers as a way to help out.
Help out how?
The default explanation is "by raising awareness." And awareness these days typically translates into "telling women to get a mammogram."
And mammograms have recently been called into question by researchers. A massive study of 90,000 women “found that the death rates from breast cancer and from all causes were the same in women who got mammograms and those who did not,” the New York Times reported in 2014.
Too many of us know the horror of seeing a loved one deal with cancer. My mother-in-law survived breast cancer, and my mother and grandmother lost their lives to other cancers that, sadly, do not inspire the marketing frenzy of breast cancer.
We all want to find a cure for cancer -- breast or otherwise -- and sometimes, especially in October, we're led to believe that buying a pink product will help do that.
So how much of what you pay for pink products, or to participate in a fundraising event, actually goes to help those with breast cancer or the researchers trying to find a cure? Surprisingly, not much, if you give to the wrong organization or buy the wrong product.
The answer is not to stop giving -- but to be more mindful when you buy pink products or donate to breast cancer efforts. Here are a few tips:
#1: See whether proceeds from pink-decorated products are actually going to breast cancer research.
Cause-based marketing, as it is known, can be hugely effective for companies because consumers want it.
“Despite a marketplace saturated with cause-related programs and messages, the U.S. consumer appetite for corporate support of social and environmental issues appears insatiable,” a 2013 Cone Communications Social Impact study says. Not coincidentally, Carol Cone, the company’s founder, helped cosmetics company Avon link its name to the fight against breast cancer.
The magazine Marie Claire found pink-ribbon products whose sellers have never donated a cent to breast cancer victims or research. “Because no one really owns the rights to what has become the universal symbol of breast cancer … peddling the logo has become a massive racket, overrun by slick profiteers exploiting the public's naive assumption that all pink purchases help the cause,” wrote Lea Goldman.
Besides following the money, be aware of the potential conflicts between product and pink – for example, the Susan G. Komen Foundation came under fire several years ago for partnering with a fracking firm to sell drill bits painted pink, in spite of people’s concerns about possible links between fracking and cancer.
For starters, ask questions about the pink product and the profits. The Breast Cancer Action group’s web page “Think Before You Pink” offers tips before you throw your money at a pink product.
And the site Charity Navigator offers a list of things to consider before spending money on a pink product.
#2: Check out breast cancer organizations before you donate to see how much of their funds actually go to research or to help victims.
Charity Navigator rates nonprofit organizations with the help of information from the IRS on its form 990, which provides the public with financial information about a nonprofit organization.
And the Federal Trade Commissionvides tips for consumers on how to avoid charity scams.
The FTC is also active in identifying and prosecuting charities that bilk donors.
This year, it imposed a judgment on two charities that claimed to be raising money for cancer, fining them $75,825,653, the amount consumers donated between 2008 and 2012. Charity Navigator also posted an alert about a breast cancer organization that was associated with the two charities.
#3: Research breast cancer walks and races before participating to find out their sponsors and where the money raised actually goes.
The Breast Cancer Action Group has a list of questions to ask before you walk or run in a breast cancer event.
It was a powerful experience seeing my mother-in-law walk in a breast cancer event in Denver after her recovery. And a sobering one, too, seeing thousands of survivors, as well as thousands of relatives of women and men who did not survive, coming together.
Where did the money we paid to participate go? Frankly, I assumed it would help those courageous people, but I never thought to check.
So question, research, then buy, walk, or donate.
And if you want to help even more women, add a donation to heart disease research. Thanks, inadvertently, to the effectiveness of the Breast Cancer Awareness campaign, many people think breast cancer is the number-one killer of women.
But heart attacks kill more women than all cancers combined. In the U.S. each year, 1 in 31 women will die from breast cancer – while 1 in 3 women will die from heart disease. In fact, a woman just died of a heart attack a minute ago.