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Pink Ribbons, Orange Clovers, Blue Diamonds, Purple Horseshoes: Samantha King on Marketing Breast Ca: Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy
Samantha King
University of Minnesota Press

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

Conspiracy theorists and radical feminists will finally have something to talk about at cocktail parties this fall, provided both factions have read this book. For the former, an investigation of the corporate ?philanthropists? that fuel the breast cancer fundraising machine reveals some companies that profit from cancer drugs ? and others that produce notorious carcinogens. For the latter, there's a sharp critique of the hip, positive, pink-ribbon culture of spunky ?survivors? that focuses public attention on ?awareness? and prevention rather than the search for a cure.

You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to enjoy King's analysis of corporate philanthropy. The notion that major corporations ? from lingerie manufacturers to sports franchises ? support charities for less-than-altruistic reasons is not so surprising, but King delves further than the ferreting-out of memos from public relations firms detailing the correlation between charitable giving and brand recognition, showing us how little actual money goes to the cause in exchange for the oodles of free publicity companies reap.

Not that King is sensationalistic; she's too much of an academic to get her hands really dirty. For example, when her analysis of the NFL's ?Real Men Wear Pink? breast-cancer-awareness campaign leads her into unexpectedly dicey, racially charged territory, she spends the chapter carefully trying not to say, or even think, anything objectionable. She begins cautiously (?Public discussions about the world of professional basketball and football have long been a site for the expression of cultural anxieties about race, crime, and violence,?), and then positively fizzles out, resorting to coining terms like ?the sport-gang dyad,? which, ?while ensuring that the values articulated to both sport and gangs remain unquestioned, does not guarantee black athletes an escape from the discourse of racism.? Even SportsCenter can muster a more penetrating report on the ?character issue? for black athletes than that.

But one can hardly blame her for steering clear of tricky issues that are, for the most part, irrelevant to her purpose. What King really wants is to nail down ?cause-related marketing? in all its forms, from the blatantly self-interested (buy a pink mixer, and one dollar goes to breast cancer research!) to the more obscure (photos of celebrities wearing pink ribbons and latex wristbands). How do these myriad incarnations of charity begin, and whose purposes do they serve?

Perhaps the most illuminating thread she traces is that of the development of the public face of the breast cancer cause itself. Early in the book, she relates an anecdote told by Nancy Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Brinker approached a lingerie company in 1984 with an idea for an awareness campaign, and was reportedly told, ?We sell glamour. We don't sell fear. Breast cancer has nothing to do with our customers.? Twenty-two years later, any company with a product that is remotely female-identified ? and some, like the NFL, with nothing of the kind ? has at least considered embarking on a breast cancer-linked promotion.

In one sense, it's a success story of truly impressive proportions. But as King points out, it's simply the new, upbeat public face of what is still a frightening and costly disease.


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