Tangled up in pink

It’s October, which means it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which in turn means it’s the time of year when a marketer’s fancy turns to thoughts of pink.

The pink ribbon, to be exact.

In 1991, the Susan G. Komen foundation distributed pink ribbons to racers in a New York City marathon for breast-cancer survivors. The following year, Self magazine teamed with the Estée Lauder cosmetics corporation to sell tiny pink-satin versions in various New York shops with a portion of the profits designated for breast-cancer research.

Now, in the 17 years since, that little pink ribbon’s unfurled into a worldwide industry.

This year’s batch of ribbons is already creeping into local stores. A recent trip to my neighborhood supermarket turned up several examples of the iconic symbol as well as assorted products simply freshened up with a new, pink logo: Throw some Nestlé Pure Life water, Yoplait yogurt or Campbell’s soup into my cart and, awesome, I just donated money to a good cause. I can feel better about myself (and my diet) by purchasing avocados, pineapples and tomatoes affixed with the symbolic sticker. And, of course, I can also step outside the grocery store and donate to the cause by buying ribbon-related goods such as lipstick, jeans, ice-cream makers, skillets and pillows.

Activism doesn’t get much easier, right?

Think again.

All that pink is part of bigger mass effort to convince consumers they can put their money where their good intentions are.

The San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action group calls it “pinkwashing,” and in 2002 they launched the Think Before You Pink project. The aim: to get you to ask questions about how much cash is actually raised every time you buy pink. There aren’t any hard facts and figures on annual fundraising results, but it’s important to realize that many companies cap donations. In 2006, for example, Cartier sold a $3,800 watch for the cause, but limited its final maximum contribution to $16,000.

Or, consider this: When you shill out $125 for that pink-ribbon-embossed Ralph Lauren tank top, only 10 percent of the sale price actually profits Lauren’s Pink Pony Fund. That’s $12.50 for a cotton tank that likely cost less than $5 to make.

Want to really make a difference? Buy a no-name version for $10, stick a pink ribbon on it and donate the remaining $115 to the charity of your choice.

Of course, pinkwashing isn’t limited to Breast Cancer Awareness Month; it’s the kissing cousin to the “pink it and shrink it” trend in which manufacturers churn out pink, cutesy and often miniaturized versions of items as an effort to lure women into buying everything from pink energy drinks and sports bras to headphones, razors and “lady” tool kits.

Aww, just look at that wee bubble-gum-hued hammer!

Don’t get me wrong. As an avid devotee of all things Hello Kitty, I have nothing against tiny, pink and cute (I’ll admit it, I bought the damn tool kit), and I certainly don’t have anything against raising money for breast-cancer research.

But what angers me more than a marketer’s condescending attitude about my supposedly girlie buying habits (real or imagined) is the idea that I’m stupid enough not to notice when you repackage something with a logo and then only donate a shriveled sliver of the profits to the actual cause in question.

That’s when pink makes me see red.