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Pink breast cancer awareness ribbons sell because they're meaningless

What exactly are you saying, NFL?
What exactly are you saying, NFL?
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By now plenty of people have decried the problems of Breast Cancer Awareness Month: a "breast cancer culture" that infantilizes women, "Save the Ta-Tas" bracelets, and of course pink ribbons emblazoned everywhere, from NFL players to airline food.

But the pink ribbon has been successful. Just this year, Susan G. Komen, the largest breast cancer charity in the nation, took in nearly $422 million via contributions and its Race for the Cure. Eleven companies donate $1 million or more each year to Komen. And many argue that the roaring success of the pink ribbon has made women more aware of breast cancer screening and prevention. Why has it become so pervasive? Past awareness ribbon campaigns and research from marketing experts provide some explanations.

Learning from the yellow and red ribbons

There are a number of theories for exactly how and why awareness ribbons of any color started — some accounts say it began during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, and others say it started far earlier — but the practice of wearing awareness ribbons on lapels and putting them on products gained steam in the 1990s, first with the yellow ribbons of the Gulf War and then with the red ribbons of AIDS awareness, and then of course with the spread of the pink breast cancer ribbon. The awareness trend grew so quickly that The New York Times declared 1992 the Year of the Ribbon.

And it was back then that the people behind those causes discovered one thing that made ribbons particularly effective: they can say anything the wearer wants them to say.

"The yellow ribbons from the Gulf War were still all around," Patrick J. O'Connell, one of the activists who introduced AIDS ribbons told the Times in 1992. "We noticed that they could mean anything from 'I care about young people who have gone overseas' to 'I support Bush.' We wanted that kind of leeway, too, something that could mean 'I hate this Government' or just 'I care about people with AIDS.' "

Indeed, a 1994 study on the sociological significance of yellow ribbons found that wearers had a variety of messages, including support of President Bush, a desire to bring the troops home, and just general patriotism.

Today, there are ribbons of all sorts of colors (and many that are multicolored), covering hundreds of conditions and causes.

Highly recognizable, highly nonspecific

That non-specificity that was true of red and yellow ribbons is also true of the pink ribbon, marketing experts have found.

"The public display of the pink breast cancer ribbon suggests different things to different people. Some see it as a sign of strength (breast cancer survival)," write Jennifer Harvey, MD, and Golden Gate University Marketing Professor Michal Strahilevitz in a 2009 paper. "Others associate it with being responsible (a reminder to get mammograms regularly). Still others see it as a sign of empathy (caring about those who suffer from breast cancer)." In addition, they write, many women see supporting breast cancer awareness as a way of being a part of a sort of "sisterhood."

They add that the population most often affected by breast cancer — women over 40 — adds another dimension to why the marketing works, as these women are more likely than, say, the younger victims of cervical cancer, to be mothers.

"This group of women signifies home and family. Thus, there may be a unique emotional response to breast cancer because of the potential threat to home and family," they write.

Companies can put a pink ribbon on their products, then, not only to signify that they donate to a cause or that they care about saving women's lives, but also to easily evoke that warm and fuzzy sense of family, as well as to give customers more positive associations with a brand.

"Ribbon-wearing requires very little commitment to a cause. Indeed, wearing a ribbon does not mean that one is an active or staunch supporter of a given charity," writes Sarah E.H. Moore in her 2009 book "Ribbon Culture." And though she's talking about person wearing a ribbon, her comment can easily transfer to a yogurt or a football league — the pink ribboned advertisement can often signify very little in the way of how much money that company is giving to fighting cancer, as "pinkwashing" opponents often warn. There are several instances of companies saying they will give "a portion" of a product's proceeds to cancer research, without specifying exactly what the amount will be.

"It would seem that, in many instances, showing 'awareness' is more about the ribbon wearer than the sufferers of any given disease," Moore adds.

And indeed, companies readily admit that pink-ribbon-ing their products is great business. As the head of Ford's Warriors in Pink told CBS recently, ""We have research that shows people have a favorable opinion of Warriors in Pink, and know it's a Ford initiative, and therefore have a more favorable opinion of Ford overall."

Those big, vague associations people have with awareness ribbons, combined with consumers' love of causes, may explain why so many companies have signed on to breast cancer awareness — for example, 105 companies have partnered with Komen. PR firm Cone Communications found in a 2013 report that 93 percent of consumers have more positive images of companies that support causes, a figure that has climbed in the last couple of decades, from 84 percent in 1993.

Tainting the message

In this light, it's easy to see why the backlash to recent PR mistakes by Komen has been swift and fierce. When it came to light that Komen had partnered with drilling services company Baker Hughes to produce pink-tipped fracking drill bits, there was a quick uproar. Likewise, when Komen tried to pull its donations from Planned Parenthood in 2012, the backlash forced the company to reverse its decision.

So if ribbons succeed because of nonspecificity, the problem here was that Komen in these cases inched too far into the direction of having a point of view on a high-profile issue — either fracking or reproductive rights. The key to making the pink ribbon work is staking out that vast array of things the ribbon can mean, and then never straying outside of that area.