Commercialization of charity support

Lots of products sport pink packaging this month for breast cancer awareness. But how much are corporations really donating to the cause?

October 20, 2006|By Blythe Bernhard | Blythe Bernhard,McClatchey-Tribune

Every October, products from tweezers to toothpaste get packaged in pink.

They're all sold with the promise of promoting breast cancer awareness or benefiting breast cancer charities. Breast cancer has become the darling disease of corporate philanthropy - especially during national breast cancer awareness month.

But are the pink promotions more about boosting corporate profits via female-friendly marketing?

Although heart disease and lung cancer kill more women each year, experts say breast cancer is considered safer for companies to latch onto.

"The breast is associated with motherhood and nurturance and also sex. Those are things that hold a lot of appeal and are highly valued in our culture," says Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy.

Savvy marketing has boosted the breast cancer brand since the women's movement of the 1970s. Just as women were being encouraged to talk about their health issues, companies were looking for ways to profit from cause marketing.

Critics say that if companies are concerned with a cause, they could just donate money. But some breast cancer organizations say they welcome the parade of pink products.

"We love it. The more, the better," says Lisa Wolter, executive director of the Orange County, Calif., affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. "You see a pink-ribboned beach cruiser going down the boardwalk and you think, `There's somebody who cares about breast cancer and finding the cure.'"

According to Wolter, the Komen Foundation is careful about setting up financial relationships with corporate sponsors. "We make sure our logo is used only when there will be a meaningful donation from the product or service, and that the customer can clearly understand it from reading something on the product," she says.

Products include Playboy Beauty's $42 Gloss & Go pink lip gloss key chain with the Playmate Playboy bunny printed on top. Playboy doesn't disclose the sales percentage it promises to donate to the Komen Foundation.

Wolter said KitchenAid, Chevron, Serta and Quilted Northern Bath Tissue are companies that have year-round commitments to the foundation. They each have donated more than $1 million. In return, the companies get the business of millions of supporters.

Brand loyalty

"People who care about breast cancer - survivors, co-survivors - are all very brand-loyal when they know that a company is in the cause with them," Wolter says.

In some cases, companies spend more on the marketing than they actually donate to the cause.

The maker of Post-It notes, 3M, spent $500,000 in 2004 on a public-relations campaign to stick a seven-story pink ribbon of Post-Its in Times Square. The company then donated $300,000 to a breast cancer charity, according to an article in PR Week.

Many companies promote their donations but never disclose the amount or the recipient.

Viacom will pass along "profits" from its $6 SpongeBob PinkPants stuffed toy to "various breast cancer charities," according to a company news release.

This month, Campbell's Soup will sell pink cans of its tomato and chicken noodle soups. According to a statement, the company will "make a donation that will benefit breast cancer awareness initiatives across the country."

"Corporations don't have to say what they end up giving, and it's really hard to find that information," says King, who researched the topic as an associate professor of women's studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

And the pink promotions clearly pay off. Campbell's sold 7 million pink soup cans to Kroger stores for October - double the typical order, according to Advertising Age. The same article refers to a 2004 consumer survey showing that 90 percent of shoppers think positively of companies that contribute to a cause and are willing to switch brands for that reason.

Kyocera Advanced Ceramics donates $5 to the Komen Foundation from the sale of every $70 pink-handled, special-edition chef's knife. More than $75,000 has been donated so far, a Kyocera spokeswoman said.

"We started this a few years ago, before everyone else had jumped into the bandwagon, especially in regard to kitchen accessories," said Trish Gray, marketing manager of Kyocera, which makes ceramic knives and other kitchen products. "It seemed to us like a natural for the kitchen and to be able to give something back. We think the tie-in's just beautiful."

A serious disease

But some advocates say all the perky pinkness on lip gloss, nail polish and teddy bears can give women the impression that breast cancer is not a serious disease. While the five-year survival rate approaches 95 percent if the disease is caught early, more than 40,000 Americans die of the disease each year.

"Death doesn't sell. We've become used to talking about breast cancer as a rite of passage as opposed to this oftentimes deadly disease," King says. "That largely has to do with corporate interest in the disease."

Perhaps most disturbing to some breast cancer advocates are the companies such as Dial and Revlon, whose pink products have been studied for possible links to the disease.

Chemicals in deodorants, lotions and makeup have been researched for their estrogen-like qualities. The chemicals were found inside breast tumors in a 2004 study, according to the National Cancer Institute. More research is needed to determine whether the chemicals are a cause of the tumors, according to the institute.

So despite the rosy glow that greets shoppers this month, scientists and patients still have a long way to go in the war against breast cancer, says Barbara Brenner, a two-time survivor and executive director of the San Francisco nonprofit Breast Cancer Action.

"As long as people think that by buying something they can help solve the breast cancer problem, they're being misled," she says. "If we could shop into a cure for breast cancer, it would be cured already."

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