Breast Cancer for Fun and Profit

October was a busy month for issues of concern to women. Beyond Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it also marked the passage of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Much like Halloween, Breast Cancer Awareness activities involve trick or treating as hundreds of companies strive to capture women’s dollars with empty promises of raising funds for breast cancer "causes." Now that October is behind us, it is clear that the corporations received most of the treats, and the rest of us were tricked.

The movement for breast cancer awareness arose in the 1970s out of a need to take the stigma out of the disease and to push for ways to treat it other than radical mastectomies, which involve the removal of the underlying chest muscles as well as the breast, often with debilitating results. AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company, first organized Breast Cancer Awareness month in 1985. This was an auspicious beginning because, as Breast Cancer Action, a breast cancer prevention advocacy group, notes, AstraZeneca manufactures an herbicide known to cause cancer. Subsequently, Avon and Estee Lauder began offering pink ribbons as visual reminders of the disease. Then President Reagan signed on and, according to Dr. Samantha King, associate professor of health studies at Queen’s University and author of Pink Ribbons, Inc., corporations began to realize that there was money to be made in "cause marketing."

As feminists worked to raise awareness of the disease, corporations exploited the fears of female consumers, while simultaneously appearing sensitive to their needs and raking in extra sales. Sure, the stigma was removed from breast cancer, but as a result, breast cancer appeared to be the number one killer of women. It is not even close.

In her post on in October 2006, "Women’s Health Risks: Perceptions Vs Reality", Contributing Editor on Health and Wellness, Denise, raised the important question of why so much attention is lavished on breast cancer when it kills far fewer women than other diseases. She reports that heart disease kills nearly seven times more women each year than breast cancer, and that strokes causes more than two times more deaths. Using statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, Denise notes that one out of every two women will die from heart disease or a stroke. Even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease kills 22,000 more women than breast cancer every year, and yet this ailment is hardly a household name.

ImageSo why are corporations jumping all over each other to show that they support women by donating to breast cancer charities when they can really do more good by working to prevent heart disease and strokes? The truth is that breast cancer is a sexy illness to exploit for fun and profit. Do women want to look at pictures of fatty hearts and clogged arteries when they shop for Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, Yoplait Yogurt, Estee Lauder Pure Color Crystal Lipstick, Totes umbrellas, BMWs, Cartier watches, New Balance sneakers, or any other of the many fine products in which a purchase during October results in a donation to breast cancer causes? Does anyone? Is it not particularly easy to fit "Help fight chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the #3 illness killing women every year" into a marketing campaign, however the words "breast" and "cancer" sure catch the eye quickly, especially when marketers can add a curvy silhouette next to it (recall the line in The Princess Bride: "There’s a shortage of perfect breasts in this world. It would be a pity to damage yours.")

The other reason that so many companies jump on the breast cancer bandwagon is that it is a much easier to exploit a fear of breast cancer than that of other diseases. Many women feel a strong link between their femininity and their breasts. American culture places a premium on a woman’s worth through her breasts, and the bigger the better. In that paradigm, where does a breastless woman fit in? To lose a breast (or worse, both) in Western society often means that you lose a good part of your desirability as a person. Dr. King notes surveys that have shown that women consistently prefer other calamities, such as losing an eye, to befall them rather than to lose a breast to cancer. Thus, who of us wouldn’t spend a buck for a carton of yogurt and 39 cents on postage to send the lid to Yoplait so that they can give a few pennies to breast cancer research, which one day might help us continue to be valued women? Buying a carton of yogurt or can of soup enables us to feel like we are buying an insurance policy on keeping our breasts and our worth as females. Manipulating this fear of breast cancer is an easy way for corporations to make a quick buck.

This year, a new level of scrutiny of breast cancer cause marketing emerged after the Kroger’s grocery chain doubled its typical purchase from Campbell’s Soup in conjunction with its annual breast cancer causes campaign, which according to spokesperson Meghan Glynn, has "raised funds for over 10 years." For the first time in company history, Campbell’s Soup agreed to change its trademark red and white label on cans of chicken noodle and tomato soups to "limited edition" pink ribbon labels. In return for the additional sales, Campbell’s agreed to donate $250,000 to benefit "breast cancer awareness initiatives across the country" as part of Kroger’s larger initiative to raise $3 million dollars for the cause. While it sounds great, the Campbell’s donation amounts to a measly 3.5 cents per can, leading an October 2 article in Advertising Age to note that, "The potential payoff is big for the company, even after the donation is deducted."

After the article appeared, the ABC evening news programs aired an investigative feature on the breast cancer awareness contributions that various corporations pledged during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The conclusion was that most of these promotions led to increased sales and windfall profits that dwarfed the moderate donations that the extra sales generated. Consumers, often women, went out of their way to buy products that they normally did not purchase because they thought these products benefited breast cancer programs. The news report is available on the ABC News website, but ironically so were dozens of links to items one can purchase to "raise money" for breast cancer research/diagnosis/treatment/whatever.

This is exactly what led Campbell’s to get into the breast cancer business in the first place. The company’s spokesman, John Faulkner, told Advertising Age that, "We certainly think there is the possibility of greater sales since our typical soup consumers are women and breast cancer is a cause they’re concerned about." The article went on to cite a 2004 survey on cause marketing in which 90% reported that they would "consider switching to another company if it’s aligned with a cause." What better cause is there than breast cancer?

A cynic might note that if corporations really want to help in the fight against breast cancer, they could just make donations to the cause without forcing people to buy anything. To attract consumer attention, companies could advertise their donations on the product ("We gave money to X cause!"), or contribute money for every special label product sold, regardless of whether the label is sent back to the company. It is not as though they are unable to track sales.

Yoplait Yogurt, a subsidiary of General Mills, is most onerous in how they determine the amount they will donate to their cause, the Susan B. Komen Foundation, at the end of the year. As Sue D. complains on her blog, Red Stapler:

"I appreciate the fact that you want to help in the fight against breast cancer. The pink yogurt lids are very cute.

I will not, however, be saving the lids, rinsing them, collecting them, and sending them to you so you can donate a dime apiece to fighting cancer.

I figure I eat about 5 Yoplait yogurts a month. That’s $6 per year if I collect lids for a whole year.

I know you’re trying to be good corporate citizens, but can you just gimme a break and send the Susan G. Komen Foundation a check for $6 instead of waiting for my grubby, sour-milk-smelling lids?

I think you’re just being petty if you can’t agree to that."

It is more than pettiness, however. Companies like Yoplait rely on the fact that women will buy their yogurt to help the Susan B. Komen Foundation and then forget to send in their lids. In fact, Yoplait heavily promotes the "Save Lids to Save Lives" campaign in a thinly veiled effort to get women to buy more Yoplait, and to pressure their friends and family to do the same. "There’s strength in numbers, so rally your friends to help," the website reads. "You want to tap into the people in your life as a resource. And we’ve got tools and tips to help you motivate them to collect more lids. It’s our small way to thank you for your extra effort." Their tips for soaking your loved ones include organizing "just about any event you can come up with," including "a bake sale or an art show" and charging "pink Yoplait lids instead of cash." The tools include downloadable posters women can display to guilt co-workers, friends, and family into buying Yoplait and bringing in the lids for collection. As you and your loved ones guzzle Yoplait to raise money to cure breast cancer, Breast Cancer Action warns that "many cows are given rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone). Recent studies show that rBGH dairy products may be linked with an increased risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancer." Yoplait cannot guarantee that their yogurt does not contain rBGH. It is unclear where the "thank you" is in any of this.

On the brighter side, Yoplait’s parent company General Mills’ 2006 Corporate Responsibility report proudly states that they’ve donated nearly $14 million over 15 years to breast cancer causes. Assuming that we consumers do our part to help them reach their goal of donating another $1.5 million this year, it will bring the total to $15.5 million. While this sounds very impressive, a look at the bigger numbers shows that, like Campbell’s, the percentage of Yoplait’s sales that is actually going to the cause is quite small.

My request for production quantities was denied, so the best hard numbers that are available on Yoplait’s return on breast cancer lidded yogurts are from 1999. That year, the Georgia Secretary of State’s office investigated Yoplait for misleading advertising on the amount of money it would donate per returned pink lid investigated Yoplait for misleading advertising on the amount of money it would donate per returned pink lid. In the course of the investigation, it was revealed that 9.4 million lids were returned nationally that year. In the Oct. 12, 2006 ABC News story, David Fisher, Yoplait’s director of promotions, said, "Ten cents a cup out of a 69 cent or 79 cent cup of yogurt is about 15 percent of the cup of yogurt. We think that’s very legitimate, and we’re very proud of that." Of course, that is 15% of the price of the yogurt until the maximum donation is reached.

This type of misleading quote is exactly why the Georgia Secretary of State’s office investigated Yoplait in 1999. Ads at the time claimed that Yoplait would donate 50 cents per lid returned, without mentioning that there was maximum donation cap, regardless of the number of lids the company received. Without a cap on the donation, Yoplait would have donated $4.7 million to breast cancer causes. Instead, it maxed out at $100,000.

The investigation concluded that such statements were "deceptive and misleading to Georgia consumers" because people, including schoolchildren, had no idea that there was a cap. In resolving the investigation, Yoplait paid an additional $63,000 to breast cancer causes based on the number of lids returned by Georgia consumers. This year, despite a phenomenal growth in sales and no matter how many lids are returned, Yoplait will donate no more than $1.5 million.

The minimum and maximum amounts for donation from the campaign are set by looking at historical redemptions, explained Yoplait spokesperson. David Witt. "We try to set an attainable yet slightly stretch goal based on past consumer
participation. The minimum guarantee amount is based more on our desire
to give a meaningful amount, even if no lids are redeemed." This year’s minimum is $500,000, which is nothing to sneeze at. Yet in 2005, Yoplait donated $2.1 million to the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the "majority of which was [from] Save Lids to Save Lives." Why then is the maximum contribution lower this year?

The obvious answer is that if there were no cap on donations to breast cancer causes would potentially be astronomical. According to Yoplait spokesperson David Witt, all of Yoplait’s "production for adult products goes to pink lids for September and October." General Mills’ 2005 annual report showed yogurt sales of $3.4 billion dollars in FY05. That year, Yoplait’s overall sales increased 11% over 2004. Yoplait Light, an adult product, saw growth by 24%. In FY 2006, Yoplait’s sales volume grew another 14%. While growth in sales cannot be directly attributed to the breast cancer campaign (and indeed General Mills believes it is "due in part to advertising that shows it’s a great choice for consumers managing their weight,"), the 2006 annual report credits, "Effective consumer advertising messages" for increasing Yoplait’s sales. Given the statistics on brand selection and loyalty reported by Advertising Age, it is not much of a stretch to link increased sales to dedicated women who want to find a cure for a disease that terrifies them.

Using this information, and assuming that a minimum of 1/6 of the yearly sales take place in September and October when the pink lid yogurts are sold, Yoplait should have sold at least $236 million in adult yogurt. While donating 10 cents per returned pink lid is still a decent amount on a low cost item like a cup of yogurt, the maximum cap of $1.5 million pales in comparison to the amount that would be donated if all the pink lids sold were returned. Without a cap, that would be almost $24 million in funds raised. With the cap, it is 1/25th of 1% of the Yoplait’s yearly yogurt sales, hardly 15% of each yogurt purchased.

When Yoplait, Campbell’s, and other companies cash in on women’s fears about breast cancer, how much money is really raised and where does the dough go? It is nearly impossible to find out. Barbara Brenner, executive director of the activist agency Breast Cancer Action, an organization comprised of breast cancer survivors, says, "Many companies are ambiguous about the amount they donate from each purchase." This is an understatement. In researching this article, only Yoplait revealed how much they donated in the prior year. Not one company would tell me how many products were produced or sold either. Most did not return my requests for information. When Dr. King was writing Pink Ribbons, Inc., she also experienced the run around. "I’d speak with someone and they’d say they didn’t know the answer to my question and give me another person to call. No one ever answered that phone." Perhaps this is because people are discouraged when they discover that paltry amounts like 3.5 cents of their purchase, such as with Campbell’s Soup, are actually donated.

Not only do we not know how much is raised from our purchases, but Brenner points out that it is also hard to know how it is spent. Even when corporations are clearer than Kroger’s vague press release that tells us only that funds will go to "support breast cancer initiatives in communities across the country served by the Kroger family of stores," the money is used by charities in a hodgepodge of ways. Brenner explains that "their work is not coordinated in any way. Research conducted by a drug company in California could be the same as a study conducted by a research hospital in New York or a nonprofit agency in Atlanta. There is no system in place for making sure that research efforts move us forward toward effective treatments and true prevention, or even that current research efforts complement each other."

While we’ve all been busy shopping to find a cure, as Brennan likes to say, we are no closer to any answers now than we were 20 years ago. The problem of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and its related orgy of cause marketing, as Brennan sees it, is the propagation of the myth that a cure is at hand. "Breast cancer is not 100% curable like some other cancers," she explains. "The risk of recurrence is highest in the first two years after treatment, but it can recur at any time. We need to look more closely at the causes of breast cancer and how it can be prevented." Yet almost every pink ribbon campaign raises money for awareness (which, thanks to 10 years of awareness campaigns, is generally no longer a problem), treatment, and research for a cure that may never come, rather than for research of the underlying causes of breast cancer and prevention.

Instead, women who want to contribute to breast cancer programs can best do so by researching charities and foundations, selecting one that uses the funds appropriately (not on excessive administrative or advertising costs), and then donating directly. Next October, if you plan to buy Campbell’s Soup as part of your regular shopping, then it is commendable that you will slightly benefit a good cause when you buy them in pink. On the other hand, it is not worth it to go out of the way to buy something that you had no intention of purchasing before you saw a pink ribbon. In that case, if you want to help, you might as well donate the full amount you would have spent on the soup to a charity, which can be done year round. Not only will this ensure that the money goes where intended (rather than 96% going to a corporation and 4% to breast cancer causes), but it also benefits the donor with a tax write-off. Women can feel good about assisting directed breast cancer causes with no corporate profits involved.

At the end of the day, breast cancer may not be our #1 killer, but it is a horrible disease that primarily strikes women (over 40,000 women will be diagnosed this year), and also kills 25% of the 1,600 men who develop it each year. It is obviously important to find ways to prevent, treat, manage, and even cure this type of cancer, as I have experienced firsthand – I was damn lucky to not be left motherless at the age of four when my own mom, then 33 years old, was diagnosed with breast cancer. I would do anything to help other women and girls in that same situation. I’m just not convinced that buying a $3,900 Cartier watch, a $22 Estee Lauder Pure Color Crystal Lipstick in Elizabeth Pink, or an 89 cent can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup with a pretty pink collector’s label is going to do anything except enhance corporate profits this year and further hype a fear of breast cancer. Next Halloween, let’s not let the corporations get all the treats while women and their families are left holding a bag of empty promises.

How to Donate Money in the Fight Against Breast Cancer

More Products Going to Breast Cancer Efforts

Dairy manufacturers that do not use recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) in their products

Protect yourself and your loved ones by purchasing beauty products free of parabens and phthalates, chemicals commonly used by the cosmetics industry that BCA reports have been linked to cancer . BCA compiled a list of companies confirming the absence of these harmful substances in their products.

Support the work of Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy organization comprised of breast cancer survivors. BCA’s mission is simple: “Breast Cancer Action carries the voices of people affected by breast cancer to inspire and compel the changes necessary to end the breast cancer epidemic.” BCA has three major campaigns: to bring attention to the environmental sources causing breast cancer (Stop Cancer Where It Starts); to coordinate resources and research on breast cancer (The Puzzle Project); and to inform the public about breast cancer “cause marketing” and where the funds go (Follow the Money). To stay true to their mission, BCA has a very strict corporate contribution policy, prohibiting them from accepting funding from the pharmaceutical, chemical, oil, tobacco, health insurance, or cancer treatment industries.