Pinkwashing: Do you know where your money goes?

Written by Laura Paskin
January 2, 2017

Faculty-Student Research: Developing Ethical Standards for Breast Cancer Awareness Campaigns

Pink ribbons. Pink shoes. Pink gloves. While athletes, companies, and movie stars use pink to promote products and raise breast cancer awareness, for Communication Professor Caitlin Ring Carlson the claims and hype are personal and often unethical.

Carlson teaches strategic communications, and her research traditionally has been in communications law, policy, ethics, and more recently hate speech in social media. Diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, Carlson became increasingly interested in cause-related marketing associated with breast cancer.

“Pink washing is the term we use for efforts by companies that exploit breast cancer patients or their families by selling products that either harm women or by not being transparent about the total amount of money being donated,” Carlson explained.

Funded by a College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Research Grant, Carlson hired strategic communications student Uyen Le (Lili), class of 2016, to examine the ethics of pink campaigns. While Lili reviewed the literature and research, Carlson examined the campaigns. One example of a lack of transparency is Yoplait.

“Almost a decade ago, they said they would donate 50 cents a lid, and people sent in more than 9 million lids,” Carlson noted, “but they capped their donation at $100,000. That’s the lack of transparency we’re talking about.”

Perhaps most problematic is the number of companies that link breast cancer awareness to products, including beer, alcohol, and fatty foods, that are linked with breast cancer.

“One of the most ironic examples was Avon’s release of six ‘Lipsticks for the Cure,’” she recalled. “The lipsticks contained paraben, and that’s been linked to causing breast cancer.”

Lili, who came from Vietnam to the United States to study and graduated in December, had just finished an ethics course when she began working with Carlson last summer. Putting her classroom knowledge to use in a real-world scenario was enlightening.

“Marketing and public relations in my country isn’t that strong,” she said. “We don’t have the concept of cause-related marketing, but I think we’re getting there. When we develop it, we should be concerned about ethical issues as well, what benefits society, what helps other people—we need to look at how to get a mutual benefit instead of a selfish way of doing this.”

Carlson acknowledges that cause-related marketing has an important place in raising awareness and especially funding, but, she emphasizes, that type of campaign should meet ethical standards. As a result of her research project, she developed a tool set for public relations and marketing professionals that provides a set of best practices for public relations professionals tasked with putting together those campaigns.

“Lili wants to go on to graduate school and having her as co-author on a published paper will go a long way to helping her achieve her goals,” Carlson noted. “We developed this together, and we’re eager to get the best practices out to practitioners.”

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