There are three foolproof ways to know we’ve hit October:
- Pumpkin spice is everywhere
- Store shelves are overflowing with candy
- Everything – from apparel, to small home appliances, to drill bits (?!) – is pink
(Ok, if we’re being honest, the pumpkin spice and candy surplus don’t always wait until October. So we’re really talking about pink here.)
It seems organizations in every industry want in on the perceived goodwill tied to supporting breast cancer awareness. The phenomena has spread so far and wide that it has a less-than-PR-friendly name: pinkwashing.
We could get into the issue of virtue signaling vs. authenticity and what it can mean for your brand, but there’s another question burning in the minds of those of us who both work in PR and have lost a loved one to a less publicized, less funded cancer: how did breast cancer do it?
It comes down to delivering a widely relevant and compelling message to the right audience.
STARTING WITH A GRASSROOTS EFFORT
The history of the “pink ribbon” breast cancer awareness movement goes back to 1990, when Charlotte Haley began a grassroots campaign around the fact that only 5% of the National Institutes of Health budget funded breast cancer research. Haley, who herself had multiple relatives fight breast cancer (including her grandmother, who lost her battle), shared her message through cards affixed with peach ribbons. She both sold ribbons locally and sent them to prominent women who might listen to the message, asking all to wear the peach ribbons to help raise awareness and “wake up legislators and America.”
These cards and peach ribbons may not have been the first step in breast cancer awareness, as Breast Cancer Awareness Month first launched in 1985 as part of a campaign encouraging women to get regular mammograms, but they propelled the movement forward, emphasizing research funding on top of early detection and prevention.
Haley’s campaign touched a nerve for many. She reported to the Los Angeles Times in 1992 that she received calls from women moved – sometimes to tears – by what she was doing, as they or their loved ones had experienced breast cancer first-hand. The movement resonated with the audience, and they did their part to help spread the message.
GOING PINK WITH THE HELP OF EARLY INFLUENCERS
Despite the flame Haley was fanning through the grass, the real fuel to the fire came in the form of early-90s “influencers.” Two of the women on Haley’s mailing list – Self magazine editor Alexandra Penney and Estée Lauder senior vice president Evelyn Lauder – used their positions in society to promote the cause through a special insert in the October 1991 issue of the magazine. They included Haley’s ribbon as a symbol, changing the color to “the most universally recognized female color”: pink.
Haley could have shared her message with her own network for years and raised some awareness, but it likely wouldn’t have resulted in the billions of dollars that are now raised for breast cancer research each year. Today, breast cancer research is overwhelmingly the best-funded in the world of cancer, out-pacing the next highest single cancer (colon and rectal cancer) by more than $52 million.
Between grassroots efforts and the expanded reach gained through public influencers, Haley’s message gained real momentum.