How Much Awareness Is Too Much?

Prostate cancer advocates have long bemoaned the public’s relative ignorance of the extent and consequences of this male cancer.  This ignorance is especially striking when compared to widespread knowledge about breast cancer, even though the two cancers have a nearly equivalent number of diagnoses (about 230,000) each year in the US.

It’s easy to explain the disparity: everyone knows which disease pink represents.

Logo for Breast Cancer Awareness Ford Mustang

Logo for Breast Cancer Awareness Ford Mustang

Most significantly, perhaps, the White House is bathed in pink light one night each October, breast cancer awareness month.  So far, efforts to light the White House blue in September—prostate cancer awareness month—have been unsuccessful. Also notably, the NFL, whose teams wear pink cleats and accessorize with pink sweatbands in October, never wear blue.  Retailers shower us with pink merchandise that has only the remotest connection to women with breast cancer: KitchenAid mixers, Duracell batteries, and pink Ford Mustangs, to name just a few.  The only memorable marketing promotion for prostate cancer was a now-discontinued blue ribbon on packages of Men’s Depend® Briefs.

Public awareness has financial consequences.  Federal government funding[1] for breast cancer research in 2011 (the latest year for which data are available) was $745 million, while research funding from the same sources totaled only $368 million for prostate cancer.  Thousands of motivated women have descended on Congress since the early 1990s to advocate for breast cancer research funding. The results show.

So, we advocates seeking greater funding for prostate cancer research might conclude that raising public awareness of “prostate cancer blue” should be our primary strategy.  But making blue the widespread equivalent of pink may not be the perfect solution to our awareness problem.

For many breast cancer advocates, the aggressive merchandising of “pink products” by corporate sponsors has a dark underbelly.  Many breast cancer advocates assert that corporate interests have usurped the awareness movement to serve their own marketing goals. 

“The function of pink-ribbon culture — and Komen in particular — has become less about eradication of breast cancer than self-perpetuation: maintaining the visibility of the disease and keeping the funds rolling in,” writes Peggy Orenstein in “Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer.”[2]  

In her 2011 documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc., Canadian filmmaker Lea Pool claims to reveal “the co-opting of what [breast cancer awareness] marketing experts have labeled a ‘dream cause.’”  Pool notes, “women are also the most influential market group, buying 80 percent of consumer products and making most major household purchasing decisions. So then who really benefits from the pink ribbon campaigns — the cause or the company?”[3]  She illustrates this point with several egregious examples of products–such as pink buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken–that are more likely to contribute to the problem of breast cancer than to ameliorate it.

A “pink dissenters” group, Breast Cancer Action, launched a website, thinkbeforeyoupink.org, asking people to consider questions such as, “Does any money from this purchase go to support breast cancer programs? How much?” before purchasing “pinkified” products.[4]

So what lessons should less widely known diseases—particularly prostate cancer—take away from the pink juggernaut? 

First, be careful what you wish for.  When I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2009, I was dismayed that the Susan G. Komen Foundation had over 200 corporate sponsors, from American Airlines to Ford to Yoplait Yogurt.  The Prostate Cancer Foundation (fairly analogous to Komen in terms of its mission) lists exactly three.  But four years later, I am considerably more ambivalent about accomplishing greater awareness with intensive marketing by corporations. (Even assuming they would be willing.  Older men are a much less attractive target demographic than middle-aged women.)  As a marketer myself, I understand that selling the product inevitably trumps the cause in which you package it.  If a company can appear beneficent to an attractive demographic, so much the better.  But in the end, it’s about the sponsor’s bottom line.

Second, hyper-awareness can too easily become an end rather than the means to thoughtful public education and raising research dollars.  As Orenstein points out, “Wearing a bracelet, sporting a ribbon, running a race or buying a pink blender expresses our hopes, and that feels good, even virtuous. But making a difference is more complicated than that.”  It’s easy to forget that breast cancer–or any kind of cancer–is not pretty or chic. Cancer is not pink. Or blue. It’s ugly, and it does vile things to people.  

Do awareness-raising efforts involving corporate sponsors just paper over the stark reality of cancer with pretty images of women running or cute pink teddy bears? Is this simply a sophisticated way to enable our society to remain in denial about our shared mortality?  Does buying pink products allow us to feel good on the cheap, rather than undertake the arduous task of building awareness and education on a personal and community level? What should we men do?


[1] Government funding sources for research are the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP), administered by the DOD (the CDMRP’s budget is NOT part of the overall DOD budget, however). 

[2] New York Times Magazine (April 25, 2013)

[4] http://thinkbeforeyoupink.org/ accessed 4/25/2013

Comments

  1. says

    Craig has nailed it.

    So-called “cause marketing” too often benefits the marketing, not the cause — as we see with breast cancer, Big Pink and the Komenteers. Much awareness has been raised, resulting in much money being raised — but the breast cancer outcomes for women — longevity, survivability — haven’t been raised. Oh, one thing that has been raised: the number of women receiving over treatment for ductal carcinoma in situ, a stage zero risk factor for breast cancer.

    If awareness doesn’t result in better outcomes, what’s the point of raising awareness (a/k/a fear)? The only schematic diagram for benefitting women should read: increased awareness–>increased funding for research–>increased longevity.

    I hope that we in the blue community don’t make this mistake. Somehow, with Mike Milken and the Prostate Cancer Foundation on the case, I don’t think we will. But we do need to raise more money for prostate cancer research — and all that cause marketing money from Big Pink needs to go into hard-core research that benefits women.

    Thanks, Craig, for beating down this open door. It needs to be done. B

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