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Breast Cancer Awareness Month is Over, Cue the Cause Marketing Backlash

Breast Cancer Awareness Month ended Oct. 31, and I saw more pink ribbon cause marketing than ever, so you can certainly expect the backlash to begin.

Certainly that’s what Cecil Adams, the fine syndicated columnist, is up to in his October, 29, 2010 column called ‘Do pink ribbon campaigns against breast cancer do any good?’

Adams issues three basic laments:

1). Unlike in Canada the Pink Ribbon isn’t owned by anyone in the United States, opening up the campaign to possible corporate mischief.

2). Everyone would be better off if you just sent $12 in rather than go through all the who-ha of collecting and mailing Yoplait lids.

3). While death rates to breast cancer have fallen since 1990, breast cancer incidence rates are actually 25 percent higher than in 1980.

I can’t speak knowledgeably to the science or the physiology of breast cancer, so I’ll just address Adams’ two central problems with cause marketing.

That the ribbon isn’t owned by one entity in the United States certain DOES open it to corporate mischief and ‘pinkwashing.’ I’ve seen and called out plenty of pink ribbon abusers. But that must be weighed against the fact that the pink ribbon campaign is also almost certainly larger and better known than if any one entity owned it.

And Canada isn’t a fair ‘control’ because the media between the two countries is widely shared. Eighty percent of the Canadian population lives within 200 miles of the border. And most Canadians can view American TV, Internet, radio and magazines almost as easily as can Americans. It’s clear that whatever growth has come to the Canadian Pink Ribbon effort is in some part due to the ‘free rider’ effect.

Adams himself points out that U.S. Federal funding of breast cancer research went from $81 million in 1990 to $685 million in 2009, evidence, I suspect, that the popularity of the pink ribbon has influenced national cancer research funding priorities.

As for the hassles of label redemption campaigns, which Adams terms “laborious,” as a cause marketer I don’t disagree. Cause label campaigns are more than 25 years old and kinda retrograde from my point of view. But his larger point is that the amounts raised by cause marketing seem so insignificant.

But to me this is part of the genius of cause marketing. Cause marketing raises pennies from millions of people. If a generous donor gives your nonprofit hospital $1 million, you can be darn sure that you’re going to jump through some hoops for that money. And naming rights are the least of it. The donation tale often wags the dog.

Remember when Joan Kroc left $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army? The gift was made contingent on the Salvation Army building some number of community centers. Before the gift the Sally Ann was explicitly NOT in the community center business.

But if self-same hospital raises $1 million through cause marketing efforts often $0.10 in increments, the democratization of the donation leaves charity free to utilize the money as it sees fit.

There are other benefits of cause marketing to charities. Without cause marketing and without the Pink Ribbon, Susan G. Komen is almost certainly a much smaller, perhaps even regional charity. And you have to factor in the degree to which success in Komen’s walk events is fed by its many successful cause marketing efforts.

I’ve admired Adam’s columns for years, but I think he got this one wrong.


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