Think Before You Pink

29 October 2013Opinion

Earlier this month, I received a marketing email from WestJet, a discount Canadian airline. They hold weekly Blue Tag sales on flights, providing discounts on a variety of their routes during a small window. I don’t usually pay much attention to their marketing emails, but this one caught my eye because instead of the usual Blue Tag sale they were promoting a Pink Tag sale:

Marketing email from WestJet advertising a "Pink Tag" sale.

The marketing material was not very informative, but mentioned that WestJet was “Proud to support the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.” Realizing that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I clicked the link to the Pink Tag sale website, expecting to find details describing how WestJet’s weekly flight promotion supported the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. I was unable to find any such information on the promotion page, and a search of WestJet’s website only turned up a small pink banner overlaid on a separate flight contest graphic on the homepage:

Screenshot of the WestJet homepage displaying a pink breast cancer awareness banner.

Clicking that banner took me to an entry form to win a free flight, but again there was no information on how WestJet was supporting the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

Looking for more information, I sent a question to WestJet via Twitter:

The link they tweeted back led to a blog post, written by WestJet President and CEO Gregg Saretsky, explaining their involvement with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation:

During October, watch for special pink WestJet pins at our check-in counters, available for a suggested donation of $2. On board, you can also pick up a pair of limited-edition pink WestJet earbuds for $10. One hundred per cent of sales from these items will go to the CBCF.

I could be mistaken, and perhaps the company is also donating an undisclosed sum of money to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, but on the surface it looks like WestJet is using breast cancer awareness month and the colour pink to sell plane tickets. If I receive an email advertising something called a Pink Tag sale in the month of October, I fully expect that some portion of the proceeds from my plane ticket purchase will go to charity. Instead, WestJet is selling $2 pins and $10 headphones as their way of contributing, something that is only made clear if you hunt the information down. I think that is unethical.

I am using WestJet as an example here, but they are certainly not the only company to follow this trend. S.E. Smith wrote an excellent opinion piece for The Guardian last October titled Pinkification: How Breast Cancer Awareness Got Commodified for Profit:

The breast cancer awareness industry has become a multibillion dollar juggernaut spanning multiple continents, flooding them with a sea of pink ribbons and tie-in products intended to entice socially aware consumers. Buy enough pink things, and you, too, will conquer cancer; the next level of awareness is always a step away, and with it will come some magical development in breast cancer research. Breast cancer has become a product, not just a disease.

It’s a far cry from the early origins of the movement, when women fought hard to even get people to acknowledge that breast cancer existed, let alone talk about it. Breast cancer was a deeply taboo subject that wasn’t fit for polite society, and it needed the ferocious efforts of feminists, and other activists, to catapult it into the public consciousness and fight for research, along with funding for treatment and patient support.

Last October, the Better Business Bureau even put out an advisory on so-called Pink Products:

“The fight against breast cancer is dear to the hearts of many women and those who love them,” said Michelle L. Corey, BBB president and CEO. “But companies need to do more than change the color of their packaging if they are going to market themselves as benefactors of breast cancer charities.”

The BBB has studied pink products ranging from lint rollers to teddy bears. The BBB found that some products promise significant donations to breast cancer charities while others do not. Many products lay out the amount they contribute to charities on the packaging, which the BBB believes is the best way to inform consumers who are interested in buying products to support those charities. However, other products make only vague claims, or they require consumers to mail in proof of their purchase before donations can be made.

If you want to support breast cancer charities by purchasing products, the BBB advises that you look into how that purchase will benefit a charity and which charity will get the money.

Obviously I am not the first person to consider the ethics around pink products. In fact, in 2011 the National Film Board of Canada released an entire documentary on the subject, titled Pink Ribbons, Inc.:

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Léa Pool, and produced and executive produced by Ravida Din for the National Film Board of Canada, PINK RIBBONS, INC. is a feature documentary that shows how the devastating reality of breast cancer, which marketing experts have labeled a “dream cause,” has been hijacked by a shiny, pink story of success.

Breast cancer is a horrible disease and it is wonderful that people are willing to purchase products that purportedly donate proceeds to charitable causes that are searching for a cure. But before buying pink products we should all pause to contemplate how big an impact we are really making, and whether there are more efficient ways to help. Think before you pink.