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Oct 26, 2006

Philanthropy through rose-coloured glasses

Nowhere is the corporatisation of philanthropy more evident than in the colour pink. But is it all rose-tinted?

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Nowhere is the corporatisation of philanthropy more evident than in the colour pink.

October is National Breast Cancer Month and Australians are witnessing an explosion of pink products. Led by the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s handy “go shopping” guide, here are just some of the companies that have pinked their products in Australia:

  • GlaxoSmithKline — Panafen Plus pain reliever
  • Unilever — Dove Pink deodorant and Beauty Bar range
  • MasterFoods — Tomato sauce in pink bottle
  • Mars Inc — Pink and White M&Ms
  • Arnott’s — Strawberry-flavoured “Pink Wish” Tim Tams
  • Coca Cola Amatil (Australia) Pty Ltd — Mt Franklin bottled water with pink cap
  • Ford — Pink handbag used by Jackie O in Ford TV commercial
  • Jeans West — Five designer t-shirts
  • Filofax — Pink organiser
  • Willow — Selected range of houseware products: food storage, bakeware, indoor refuse items and laundry hampers.
  • John Fairfax — Monday’s edition of The Sydney Morning Herald printed on pink paper
  • David Jones — Charity bears “Theordore and Charlotte”

When it comes to raising money, a recent experiment at the University of Chicago showed that it’s always much easier to get people to cough up when there’s a product attached. And no-one understands this better than the pink movement, which presents a win-win situation for corporates and breast cancer charities — companies ride the goodwill wave and sell more product; foundations get lots of money in their coffers, not to mention a cost-efficient way of spreading the breast cancer message.

In fact, the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) gets so much free publicity via its corporate partners that it doesn’t need a formal advertising budget. Not only that but News Ltd is a diamond partner — which might explain the snicky Strewth column in The Oz on Tuesday, belittling the $25,000 raised by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s pink edition.

But is it all rose-tinted? While it’s hard to be curmudgeonly when the pink army is raising money and awareness for an important issue, there’s something vaguely unsettling about the market saturation, perhaps due in part to level of attention given to a single cause. The National Breast Cancer Centre, which was established in 1995, has since secured about $34 million in funding, reports The Oz. During the same period, ovarian cancer received just $800,000, while a range of other women’s cancers missed out on special funding.

Even the NBCF seems to be overwhelmed by its own popularity. While the foundation is not going to stop taking on partners in future years, a spokeswoman told Crikey that the foundation will work hard to manage the “exponential” growth of sponsors while starting to consolidate other areas of the business, like volunteering programs, employee giving and corporate social responsibility. Incredibly, there are only four people in its marketing division.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting that companies are clamouring to be pink — breast cancer wasn’t always the most popular girl in school. As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in her excellent Harper’s essay in 2001, “Welcome to Cancerland: A Mammogram Leads to a Cult of Pink Kitsch”:

Thirty years ago, before Betty Ford, Rose Kushner, Betty Rollin, and other pioneer patients spoke out, breast cancer was a dread secret, endured in silence and euphemized in obituaries as a “long illness.” … Now breast cancer has blossomed from wallflower to the most popular girl at the corporate charity prom. While AIDS goes begging and low-rent diseases like tuberculosis have no friends at all, breast cancer has been able to count on Revlon, Avon, Ford, Tiffany, Pier 1, Estee Lauder, Ralph Lauren, Lee Jeans, Saks Fifth Avenue, JC Penney, Boston Market, Wilson athletic gear-and I apologize to those I’ve omitted.

So has the pendulum swung too far the other way? In America, where the pink movement took off, there’s a requisite counter-movement, Think before you pink. Listing a bevy of pink products, they encourage consumers to think critically about what they’re really buying:

Breast cancer has become the poster child of corporate cause-related marketing campaigns, as companies try to boost their image and their profits by connecting themselves to a good cause. Breast Cancer Action urges you to ask some critical questions before opening your wallet for these marketing campaigns: How much money goes to the cause? What is it supporting? How is it being raised? And will it truly affect the fight against breast cancer?

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