Madeleine Bird

Breast cancer has become the darling of corporate Canada. From yogurt lids to motor vehicles, the pink breast cancer 'awareness' ribbon is showing up on more and more products. Breast cancer is an easy disease to market since everyone loves to think about, talk about, and look at breasts. Marketing it is even easier when it is seen as a feminist issue — without the politics.

In the summer and fall of 2004, as an intern with Breast Cancer Action Montreal, I looked into the nature of breast cancer cause marketing in Canada. I found layer after pink layer of marketing campaigns, both national and local, in the search for transparency, accountability, corporate awareness of the breast cancer issues being supported, and potential conflict of interest. The results left me anything but tickled pink.

What exactly is breast cancer cause marketing? Tri-Marketing, an on-line Canadian marketing and publicity firm, defines cause marketing as "a partnership between a for-profit company and a non-profit organization which increases the company's sales while raising money and visibility for the cause."1 Note that, in almost all breast cancer cause marketing campaigns, it is the consumers' money that raises funds for the cause, not the corporation. The corporation uses the pink ribbon to grab consumers' attention and money while attracting a little more visibility for the cause.

Yoplait splashes the pink ribbon on the lids of their yogurt pots. However, it is up to the consumer to mail the lids to Yoplait before the company donates ten cents to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. This is a lot of effort (and postage) from the consumer. Most consumers will purchase the product because of the pink ribbon, and then throw out the lid. Cause marketing uses the disease to attract the sympathy of consumers and to get their products to the cash register.

How much money is being raised through cause marketing — and is it being well spent? These are impossible questions, not only because of the large (and growing) numbers of corporations jumping on the breast cancer bandwagon but also because the money side of breast cancer cause marketing transactions is often explicitly confidential.

Belvedere International, a company that manufactures health and beauty products, puts a pink ribbon on its Down Under Natural's, Salon Mode, Nature's Basics, and European Formula products. However, Belvedere refuses to disclose the portion of the sales of these products earmarked to breast cancer research, nor will they disclose what specific breast cancer efforts these funds support. Is it because they simply don't know?

There are other examples: Chatelaine/Flare Magazine claims to be "committed to raising awareness for breast cancer"2 but they have a strict confidentiality agreement with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and will not disclose any information, financial or otherwise, about their sponsorship. This lack of transparency naturally raises questions: If they are doing good works, why would they hide this information? The problem is compounded by the fact that corporations are not accountable for how these monies are used.

Clearly, money is being made for breast cancer research. But most of this money is directed to already wealthy organizations; organizations known to be conservative in their approach to breast cancer issues and often with troubling ties to major pharmaceutical companies and/or corporations whose products contribute to the incidence of breast cancer.

A probe into breast cancer cause marketing issues reveals conflicts of interest or 'two-timing' corporations. The wealthiest and most visible breast cancer charities rarely mention crucial issues such as primary prevention (stopping breast cancer before it starts) or potential environmental links to breast cancer. It forces one to speculate that perhaps these issues are being ignored because the environmental toxins that lodge in the fatty tissue of our breasts can be traced to 'pink ribbon' face creams from our local pharmacy.

We all know Johnson & Johnson, and this brand supports both the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation. Although Johnson & Johnson never replied to my inquiries into their cause marketing campaign, some information is available elsewhere. The 'Skin Deep' section of the Environmental Working Group's website3 tests popular products for toxins, possible carcinogens and other health risks. Of the 42 Johnson & Johnson products tested, seven contained possible human carcinogens (and posed a cancer risk), 18 contained impurities linked with breast cancer, and 29 contained impurities linked with other cancers and/or possible human carcinogens. (The numbers don't add up because often the products fit into two or more categories.). Thirty-three of the 42 Johnson & Johnson products tested are intended for use on babies.

Ford is another example of a two-timing corporation. Ford is a major sponsor of the CIBC's "Run for the Cure." Ford's internal combustion engines, like all internal combustion engines produce 1,3 butadiene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH's), toxins linked to breast cancer incidence. In cases like these, breast cancer cause marketing seems more like damage control than philanthropy.

As mentioned above, primary prevention is an approach significantly lacking in the literature issued by wealthy breast cancer charities involved in cause marketing. This may well be due to the conflict of interest deriving from funds received from major pharmaceutical companies. An example is AstraZeneca, the maker of tamoxifen, the initiator of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and supporter of the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation and Willow Breast Cancer and Support Resources Services (in Ontario). The AstraZeneca company, formerly known as Zeneca, was originally owned by Imperial Chemical Industries, a multibillion-dollar producer of pesticides, paper, and plastics. Along with tamoxifen, Zeneca produced fungicides and herbicides including the carcinogen, acetochlor. Its Perry, Ohio, chemical plant is the third-largest source of potential cancer-causing pollution in the United States.4 Major international breast cancer awareness events like National Breast Cancer Awareness Month turn a blind eye to primary prevention issues because any discussion of the causes of breast cancer would necessarily focus on companies like AstraZeneca —major producers of potentially carcinogenic and certainly harmful environmental toxins.

With so much information purposely hidden from the public concerning questionable corporate involvement in the development of breast cancer (such as AstraZeneca's), it is not surprising that the issue of primary prevention receives so little attention. In fact, less than 5% of all monies spent on breast cancer research goes toward true primary prevention.5 By not asking where their money goes or how it is spent, firms involved in breast cancer cause marketing contribute significantly to this appalling situation. Instead of thinking of toxins in relation to environmental aspects of breast cancer, the focus is kept on the woman herself. She is told to quit smoking, to keep alcoholic consumption to a minimum, to exercise, to eat low-fat foods, to perform breast self-examinations and to book regular mammograms. These are ways to maintain general health, but none will prevent the disease. A major problem with this imbalance is that, if a woman gets breast cancer, she may believe that it is her own fault. And this attitude is widespread.

For example, WonderBra is including two million manuals on breast self-examination with their products. According to the company, this 'You've Got the Power' campaign helps connect Canadian women to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, while empowering them to take responsibility for their own breast health".6

No woman (or man) can be held completely responsible for her/his own health; there are millions of factors that influence our bodies' behaviour over which we currently have little or no control. Corporations like AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Ford produce toxin-containing products that are absorbed into our bodies no matter how many times we run around the block. Breast cancer is a public health issue, and not merely a personal battle.

This is just a peek behind the pink façade but it reveals a plethora of pink ribbon bruises and blues. The current context of breast cancer cause marketing in Canada is lacking in transparency, accountability, a feminist agenda and a public health perspective. Corporate interests are 'pinkwashing' away the political issues that become clear with a little probing. Unfortunately our purchases cannot sweep away the disease, no matter what breast cancer cause marketing would have us believe. What we can do is sing our pink ribbon blues, to corporations and to breast cancer charities, loud and clear.


Ways to sing the pink ribbon blues:

Get informed. Find out more about breast cancer issues and research.

Ask critical questions. Email or telephone a corporation involved in breast cancer cause marketing and ask basic questions about what they contribute, to whom and why.

Challenge the company to make an informed and private donation that will benefit an issue that is important to the members of the corporation, rather than putting a pink ribbon on a product to increase sales.

Talk to your friends. If you know someone who is interested in breast cancer issues, spread the word about the problems with breast cancer cause marketing.

Support your cause. Instead of giving to questionable corporations for an unknown and distant breast cancer effort, why not donate directly to a research project or breast cancer organization that you think is important and has meaning to you?

Inform your Breast Cancer Foundation. If you think your breast cancer foundation is too heavily involved with questionable corporate cause marketing, tell them.

Get involved. Contact Breast Cancer Action Montreal ( for ways to make a difference.

1. html, last retrieved March 29, 2005
2."National Run Sponsors," The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, available
from last accessed September 14, 2004. 3.
4. Sharon Batt and Liza Gross, "Cancer Inc." Sierra Club, 2000, available online at:, last retrieved September 16, 2004
5., last retrieved March 3, 2005.
6. accessed September 16, 2004, emphasis mine