Companies Accused of ‘Pinkwashing’

Discussion
Oct 12, 2011
George Anderson

It seems like every company under the sun is sporting pink these days to show support for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation in its work to eradicate breast cancer. Heck, even National Football League teams wear pink as they attempt to knock the stuffing out of their opponents.

The ubiquitous nature of all this pink makes us wonder, cynical as we are, how many companies are talking the talk without really doing the walk. Just as a number of businesses have draped themselves in green while being anything other than eco-friendly, are others engaged in "pinkwashing."

A search on Google or other search engine of your choosing will deliver a large number of results for the term.

An Associated Press report pointed to some questionable tie-ins, includng a 9mm Smith & Wesson handgun with a pink grip. Even the Komen Foundation has come under criticism for licensing a perfume that allegedly contains chemicals associated with breast cancer.

Pinkwashing.org says the term is "used to describe the activities of companies and groups that position themselves as leaders in the struggle to eradicate breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease."

A documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc., makes the case that much more could be done to fight breast cancer if consumers wrote checks directly to health organizations rather than participate in cause marketing programs where only a portion of a sale goes to groups like Komen.

Discussion Questions: Do you see a pinkwashing backlash coming? How should retailers and brands deal with the issue in light of the potential for increased scrutiny from consumers, advocate groups and the media?

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22 Comments on "Companies Accused of ‘Pinkwashing’"


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Warren Thayer
Guest
9 years 6 months ago

Having lost a friend to breast cancer, and actively involved myself in “pink” activities, I’ll just say that even if some companies are being disingenuous, and I’ll agree that no doubt some are, it’s still raising awareness — and that’s a good thing. Kroger, Target and a slew of companies I know of are raising serious funds and doing a lot of good, saving lives and easing pain. I’m aware of criticism of Komen, some of which I agree with, but I’d hate to see a backlash pick up steam and make fewer companies want to get involved at all. Too many companies are timid as it is, afraid of offending someone. It’s much easier to throw a rock than it is to dig in and become part of the solution.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
9 years 6 months ago

The Smith & Wesson story is priceless just for cocktail party humor, but apart from that, let’s get realistic for a second. How many bandwagons do retailers and brands get on without actually walking the walk?

“All Natural” labels on products? Many. Actual ‘real’ natural contents? Not so much.

Every retailer sells tons of holiday merchandise and talk about the Christmas spirit. How many actually get IN the holiday spirit and actually help those that are in need? Not so many.

We just lost a national treasure to pancreatic cancer. Is it spurring any of the brands extolling Steve Jobs to support the fight against pancreatic cancer? I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong — raising awareness is a good start. I support it. Would I like to see retailers doing more? Of course.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
9 years 6 months ago

Pink is the symbol of motherhood and who wants to be accused on not loving motherhood? But is all expressed such love sincere??? That question answers itself.

If a retailer or a brand wants to show support for this worthy cause, they must be certain that their support has substance beyond just a pink presence.

Marge Laney
Guest
9 years 6 months ago

Pinkwashing, redwashing, greenwashing; after awhile it just becomes part of the background noise. Unfortunately for the groups that are attempting to move their cause ahead and generate cash, the opposite usually occurs. People stop listening and close their wallets.

Max Goldberg
Guest
9 years 6 months ago

As much as I support the cause, there are too many companies sporting pink these days. This ubiquity has made the program ordinary. What once was a proud point of differentiation through cause marketing has become “me too.”

David Livingston
Guest
9 years 6 months ago

I don’t see any backlash. Only if the pink police go out and investigate people promoting pink and not coughing up the cash. In fact, I find it interesting how successful the pink fad has become. Breast cancer cure — a meaningful cause — seems to have moved to the front ahead of other meaningful causes and diseases. Will we ever see prostate or colon cancer become a huge marketing tool? I doubt it. Prostates and colons are not associated with beauty in advertising the way breasts are. As long as retailers can continue to find a way to cash in on breast cancer, what’s the harm? Profits for retailers, and raising awareness for the cause. A win/win.

Hayes Minor
Guest
Hayes Minor
9 years 6 months ago

As much as I champion the cause, I too, agree that consumers almost expect the “sea of pink” to arrive on shelves in October. Unfortunately, brands that were once beacons for the cause have gotten drowned out. Retailers have also unfortunately not helped the situation. From a calendarization standpoint, it’s almost imperative that a brand support the cause in some way (donations, packaging, SKU exclusivity) in order to gain incremental display or POS support. Therefore, brands really don’t have many options if they are looking for placement before the holiday retail blitz. Not sure if there will be a “backlash” however, I’m not convinced the positive impact for a brand is as strong anymore. At least the good that comes out of the month is that the cause is still front and center.

Dan Berthiaume
Guest
Dan Berthiaume
9 years 6 months ago

A “pinkwash” backlash may not occur, but I think there is already a numbness to pink. When every brand, pro sports league, etc., goes pink, it loses its aura and becomes part of the background. As recently as 5-10 years ago the sight of NFL players adorned in pink would have shocked fans, now it is assumed they will trot the pink cleats and armbands out every October. Not to minimize the importance of supporting breast cancer research, but this is simply what happens when a campaign becomes too ubiquitous.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
9 years 6 months ago

If a deserving charitable organization reaps more benefit from these programs, then there is goodness that comes from these promotional campaigns.

Paul Flanigan
Guest
Paul Flanigan
9 years 6 months ago
Yes. I do see it coming. I think it’s already here. This is one of those tightropes companies walk. If they don’t use pink, they are seen as not supportive of a cause. If they do, they have to do it just right or be seen as leveraging a cause to generate marketing awareness and nothing more. I think it’s great to raise awareness, and I really like the idea that they should encourage people to simply write checks to the cause. However, when these types of messages are absent, people wonder. The Komen Foundation should be commended for such incredible branding because most people see the color pink in a marketed manner and assume it’s for the Komen foundation. But it’s also the downfall of the color. If a retailer puts something out there that’s pink but is not related to a cause, consumers could think that the company is simply using the color for marketing. Every company needs to look at it differently, but the three questions I would ask are: 1. How… Read more »
Cynthia Witschorik
Guest
Cynthia Witschorik
9 years 6 months ago

My mom died of breast cancer years ago. I think seeing all the pink does help remind people…and I appreciate it when I see the NFL teams wearing pink or places like that. Awareness is good. Hard sell begging me to buy a “pink” item when I know that 10% or less of the proceeds are actually going to the Susan G. Komen cause is frustrating. If the companies really wanted to do the right thing, they’d donate a larger amount.

Roger Saunders
Guest
9 years 6 months ago

Retailers who tie into cause-related efforts demonstrate their commitment to community and customers. If retailers feel that there is a “pinkwashing” threat — I don’t agree with that position — point out that it’s Breast Cancer Awareness month, and donations are directed toward the local hospital, matched by the retailer, assisting local charities, etc.

Most consumers are generous. Each of us have moms, sisters, daughters, daughter-in-laws, co-workers, friends and/or neighbors who are determined to win the battle on fronts like breast cancer. Kudos to the retailers that take up the mantel to address cause-related charitable issues like Breast Cancer Awareness.

David Biernbaum
Guest
9 years 6 months ago

I have been personally involved with several brands that market products to and through retailers with Susan G. Komen for the Cure “pink” initiatives. Retailers regard the month of October as an event month for this particular cause, in the same way they regard such events as Back to School, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, etc. It’s a very popular cause because it touches one out of every three families in the nation, and let’s also be very honest here, it’s entirely energized by the color pink, which is very popular with the retailer’s most targeted consumer.

Jinida Doba
Guest
Jinida Doba
9 years 6 months ago

I see a “pinkwashing” backlash if curious (or even an altruistic) customers begin to question retail associates who are not trained on messaging about the highly visible “pink” signage and other collateral materials displayed at the point of purchase. If the retailer or organization agrees to prop up a pink donation jar or ask customers to donate an extra dollar at checkout for the cause, the person at the front line had better be able to simply and briefly explain why. I cannot count the number of times I’ve encountered sales staff who could not answer my simple question: “Where’s the money going?”

Anne Howe
Guest
9 years 6 months ago
Instead of turning all the products and packaging pink, I wish marketers would think about providing consumers with more directly useful ways to contribute to the cause. If manufacturers are supporting a trade discount deal to get the merchandising, plus paying the expenses to produce pink products and POS, why not skip all that expense and get shoppers engaged in something more meaningful. An example of this might be a brand ambassadors serving pink Vitamin Water at Komen walks. To me, that brand association is way more memorable to the spectators and participants than pink labels on the shelf in October. On the retail side, I don’t understand why more retailers don’t adopt the method Whole Foods uses to collect money for good charities, allowing shoppers to round up their bill to the nearest dollar and donate the money on the spot to breast cancer research, free mammograms or whatever. We’re stuck in the pink sea of sameness; it’s time for new thinking and more engaging ways to support this worthy cause. For the 2012… Read more »
James Tenser
Guest
9 years 6 months ago

I confess it takes some self-control on my part to avoid growing cynical about all the pink messaging we are seeing these days: the pink gloves on NFL receivers; the pink foil lids on yogurt containers; the sea of pink-clad walkers for charity; the I(heart)boobies pink rubber bracelets…

For the most part, however, awareness advocates and corporate supporters seem to be sincere about their commitment. It would be mean-spirited to criticize them just because they have been creative and successful at marketing.

Besides, like far too many Americans, I have close family members who have faced down this disease. If pinkwashing serves to rinse away stigma and maybe even a bit of the fear, then count me as an advocate too.

Mark Burr
Guest
9 years 6 months ago
Too often heart strings overcome the purse strings. Just like the tremendous amount of dollars that poured out to Haiti, sometimes its best to ask where they went and how they were spent. In the case of Haiti, neither former President Bush or President Clinton can or are willing to explain or even investigate where the money went. In the case of the ubiquitous nature of ‘pink’ the same questions should be asked. However, the heart strings and political pressure too often outweigh good sense. One might think that organizations such as these would be more forthcoming about their costs and disbursements, but they are not. In the case of ‘pink’, I’m not so sure that more than 50% of those on the street could tell you what it’s for other than for something ‘good’. It’s reached a saturation point. A lot of money flowing in. Very little said about what it does or more importantly what it’s accomplished. I can assure you, though, the response is likely “How dare you ask such a question!”… Read more »
M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
9 years 6 months ago
I must agree with the thoughts expressed by ‘Jini’ who wrote, “I’ve encountered sales staff who could not answer my simple question: ‘Where’s the money going?'” At my Safeway in Lincoln, CA, they seem always to have their hand out requesting donations for, among other charities, the Komen Foundation. Right now it’s a “Rounding Up” appeal. To avoid it you must touch “no” on the card scanner’s touchscreen AND you must also say “no” to the checker. I always ask the checker two questions: First, “Why do you ask me for a donation after I’ve just indicated “no” on the touchscreen?” Their answer is always, “They make us do it.” And second, “Is Safeway matching the funds I donate?” The answer for this is also consistent, which is “no.” Our family voluntarily contributes elsewhere to charities of our choice. Breast cancer has affected us, so that’s near the top of our list. And, I realize there is value in Safeway’s providing a no-cost collection agency for charities. This is listed as “in-kind” charitable giving by… Read more »
Brian Kelly
Guest
9 years 6 months ago

Looking at BH&G or Sunday inserts, the backlash is a reduction in amount of “pink” CSR messages. What motivated the reduction? I think part ubiquity, part wear-out (it’s on the calendar), part disingenuous brands, part lack of brain/heart space from macro econ issues, part lack of relevance. I agree with Ms Laney, it’s a shame. This is a worthy cause that needs support.

Bob Houk
Guest
Bob Houk
9 years 6 months ago

In my case, the backlash began several years ago — I find the pink crusade to be extremely annoying and cynical, and I won’t buy any of the pink crap the marketers are pushing on us.

I should mention that I lost my wife to breast cancer ten years ago, so I am not unsympathetic to the cause — only to the way it is marketed.

I also cannot help but ask: Why is only breast cancer considered worthy of fundraising? Prostate cancer kills roughly the same number of people. But women are a more desirable marketing target, aren’t they?

David Slavick
Guest
David Slavick
9 years 6 months ago
Cancer survivors have touched my family very close to home. Fair enough to ask the question, and when it comes to emotional issues like this one, having a skeptical POV as to true intentions is a worthwhile question. But even a dyed in the wool NRA member can still be impacted by breast cancer — male or female. Me thinks we doth protest too much. If it saves lives and causes people to take their health care seriously, it is well worth it, even if a select few aren’t walking the walk. I seriously doubt that the general consumer is numbed by painting our world pink for a month or more. One can generally assume purity of motives when approaching this issue by our corporate leaders and the marketing/public relations/social media professionals that deliver the message. Susan G. Komen Foundation has great leadership and they are VERY selective about who they partner with. It is a thorough process that takes much more than a few months, even a year plus to align and meet their… Read more »
Kimberly Nasief-Westergren
Guest
Kimberly Nasief-Westergren
9 years 6 months ago
I am a woman, and ovarian and breast cancer run in my family. Honestly, I am annoyed with all of the pinkwashing. Affecting 1 in 3, or 1 in 5, or 5th leading cause of cancer deaths (Ovarian) don’t mean as much to me as the fact that finding a cure for CANCER in and of itself needs to be addressed. Much like we have raised awareness for self exams and mammograms, we need to continue to raise awareness for healthy lifestyles, and honestly speaking to our Drs. Rather than pinkwashing, I would much prefer to see a cancer-awareness washing. September is Ovarian cancer awareness month (did you know that you can’t diagnose it with an annual exam, and that genetically, it is tied to the same genes as breast cancer? Most women don’t, and you never hear about that). September is also prostate cancer awareness month. If brands, and in turn retailers, want to truly do good — or at least be perceived as having the spirit of doing good (similar to the Christmas… Read more »
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