Using Colored Ribbons to Symbolize Your Cause

How powerful is the colored ribbon as a visual awareness symbol? Can causes and nonprofits continue to adopt existing colored ribbons and yet still have meaning invested in all the rest? What’s the potential for confusion when two or more different charities/causes claim the same color of ribbon? When another cause adopts a colored ribbon already in use, does it undermine meaning or expand it? Could another iconic image beside a ribbon come to mean as much? Isn’t there a ‘me-to’ aspect to ribbons nowadays? Could ribbons be overused to the point where there’s a colored ribbon backlash?

These and other questions came back to me when I heard from a reporter in Columbus, Ohio yesterday asking about a blue ribbon campaign the state is doing in support of child abuse prevention. It reminded me of ‘thank you to our sponsors’ ad I found in the Alden Keene Cause Marketing Database from WalkAmerica, the fundraiser for the March of Dimes.

In the bottom right corner of the March of Dimes ad was a blue and pink ribbon (get it?). Frankly it came as a surprise to me that March of Dimes… which works to prevent birth defects… had a ribbon and that they choose to feature it so prominently in the ad.

If the entry under Pink Ribbon in Wikipedia is to be believed then ribbons in America came in vogue in later years of World War I when a marching cadence sung by the doughboys had the line “around her hair she wore a yellow ribbon.” Another Wikipedia entry said that the yellow ribbons were worn by wives and girlfriends of American Cavalrymen in the 19th century. Another says the practice was brought to America from Europe by Puritans during Colonial times. During WWII songs were written about yellow ribbons and soldiers coming home.

But the biggest hit using the yellow ribbon theme came from Tony Orlando and Dawn in the 1970s with their song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” which was about a prisoner returning home to his sweetheart. Later, American embassy officials held hostage in Iran found yellow ribbons waiting for them on their return home in 1981. In short for perhaps 300 years, the yellow ribbon has meant a homecoming.

Then in the early 1990s AIDS activists began to employ red ribbons not as a symbol of homecoming but to bring awareness to the fight against that dread disease. Very soon thereafter activists against breast cancer began to employ pink ribbons as a symbol of the fight against that dread disease.

In Canada and increasingly worldwide the white ribbon signifies opposition to violence against women. It is also used by the Quebec peace movement to signal their disapproval of the war in Iraq.

Blue ribbons mean remembrance of police officers killed in action in Victoria, Australia. In Spain the blue ribbon is worn by those who oppose the terrorism of ETA. In Ukraine blue ribbons are worn in protest of the seizure of power during the “Orange Revolution.”

And on it goes. Every color of ribbon you could name means something to a cause or nonprofit somewhere.

Or does it?

Is it really possible for a purple ribbon to be truly meaningful for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation when it already stands for awareness of pancreatic cancer, as a protest against horse slaughter, as a sign of Pagan solidarity, and in memory of slain Beatle John Lennon?

I can see both sides of the argument. The wearing of ribbons has perhaps 15 generations of meaning woven into it, and maybe more. Why kick against the pricks?

Here’s one reason: if an existing icon has so much meaning attached to it you might find that you can’t really modify it. Yellow ribbons probably fit that category.

Here then is my suggested rule of thumb if your cause or nonprofit is thinking about utilizing a colored ribbon: If you’re one of the first five to adopt the color, well bully for you and your cause. Run hard with it.

But if you’re the last ribbon to the party… say, number six or beyond… then it’s time to head back to the drawing board and develop some other iconic image and color that can denote the unique passion, mission and thrust of your cause.

Because, let’s be honest, most of the colored ribbons are pretty well tied up.