OPINION | Pink washing: Samantha King examines the topic of linking health advocacy with consumerism


Samantha King has done her research on “pink marketing” and has written about how this feminine color has been used to champion cancer awareness causes. In an interview with the Minnesota Women’s Press she shared her critical lens on the topic of linking health advocacy with consumerism.

King is an associate professor and graduate coordinator and associate director of the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Her expansive research is in breast cancer, corporate philanthropy, neoliberalism and the politics of health, sport and the body. Her book, “Pink Ribbons, Inc., Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy” was published in 2006 by the University of Minnesota Press.

How did you become interested in the topic of marketing and breast cancer?

We tend to think of [pink marketing] as a recent thing, but I began to notice this proliferation of pink ribbon products in 1996 and 1997. I was interested in how shopping was being promoted as a way to respond to a women’s health issue.

I thought, in some ways, it was a fad that would soon diminish. What happened was, in fact, that the pink ribbon marketing aspect really grew, so that into the 2000s and even into the present, it is hard to find a major company that does not have a [pink] campaign. Breast cancer awareness early on was a North American thing. Now it’s being globalized and spread to other parts of the world as a way to promote breast cancer awareness but also a way to create markets for breast cancer products [e.g., pharmaceuticals, mammography machines].

In your book you point out the emphasis on screening and treatment for breast cancer and relatively little on prevention-driven by the drug industry and screening equipment manufacturers. Do you see any changes in that?

There are groups that are very effective in drawing attention to the need for prevention. They are effective in trying to make corporations-that sell products that may be linked to cancer-be accountable. There is pressure on large foundations to at least say they are funding preventive research. A very tiny percentage of funds go to causes. And, they tend not to be about environmental causes but about exercise or eating healthy food, practices that offer very little explanation about cause.

We have seen very little change in the regulation of the kinds of toxins that are in consumer products and especially the kinds that are sold through breast cancer marketing-especially cosmetics companies.

I know in the last year I have seen gas stations plastered with pink ribbons; cement trucks and a breast cancer hand gun can be purchased in the U.S. Products that are linked to ill health that are used to sell breast cancer awareness really point to how much work we have to do in raising awareness about the need for preventive focus. It says something about how willy nilly this whole breast cancer marketing thing has become.

In the book you comment about a set of meanings and values related to femininity and charity, white middle class womanhood and survivorship. Would you comment on that?

Scholars have written about the long history of women doing charitable volunteer work outside the home-middle class women in particular. This was a way for women to engage in the public sphere but not threaten the position of men as wage earners and economic agents.

What interests me about the breast cancer campaigns is that they draw on that and reproduce that. They call on women as consumers to do good for others by purchasing products. That is a new part of this history. If you view the kinds of images that are used to sell breast cancer products, [they are] young, white women-younger than typically get a diagnosis of breast cancer-with radiant health. They may even be bald but they will be beautifully made up and wearing lovely clothes and be slim, of course. That is the dominant image of survivorship used to sell breast cancer products and sell breast cancer awareness.

If we look at the products, they help reproduce the normative: feminine products, household cleaning products, kitchen wares and cosmetics. And, as it has grown, it has included feminized versions of other products like pink fishing rods.

The color pink in itself has very feminine connotations and also of childhood, infantilization, purity and innocence. That is why that color was chosen for this movement.

You point out the call for women to be physically active rather than politically active.

In the 1980s and ’90s there was a physical activity boom. Physical activity became a sign of good citizenship. Looking after your body and having a healthy looking body was seen as responsible. Physical activity to raise money [through walks and runs] became an approach to a way of being a member of a community. There are values of our culture around physical fitness and community and participation and citizenship.


Samantha King recommends these feminist blogs and environmental breast cancer organizations, petitions and campaigns doing all kinds of work that seeks to expose the problems with pink ribbon marketing:


http://gaylesulik.com/ (Sulik’s blog has many links to other critical websites and blogs.)