Bringing on the pink

Komen Race for the Cure participants pitched pink tents and wacky signs in the Pennsylvania Convention Center this month. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Komen Race for the Cure participants pitched pink tents and wacky signs in the Pennsylvania Convention Center this month. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 31, 2012

By Gayle A. Sulik

Every October, as surely as the leaves turn, Susan G. Komen for the Cure's pink-ribbon celebration marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But when a woman with breast cancer reads a Race for the Cure flier that says "Check out the merchandise now" or "Make your Curemitment, and enter for a chance to win a $100 Gift Card from ShopKomen.com," what is she supposed to think? In its endless efforts to expand its consumer base, Komen has lost sight of the fact that the consumers are people - people so committed to the cause that they will turn away from its largest and wealthiest charity.

When Komen cut ties with Planned Parenthood early this year and then reversed its decision three days later, the charity's intentions, leadership, and commitment came under scrutiny. It ultimately raised questions about Komen's political leanings, corporate partnerships, funding allocation, and commercialism.

Komen's response? Obfuscate. Distract. Ignore. Conceal. Exaggerate. And bring on the pink!

Obfuscate: Komen's Planned Parenthood faux pas sent the organization into a damage-control tailspin. It sought advice from former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and hired a consulting firm (your donated dollars at work) to assess its declining reputation. But Komen founder Nancy Brinker's vague response to the uproar did little to address growing unease. Eve Ellis, a Komen fund-raiser and former affiliate board member, said Brinker needed to take some "truth serum."

By August, contributions to Races for the Cure had dropped 20 percent or more. Attendance also declined - by 22 percent in Philadelphia's annual Mother's Day race, 25 percent in New York, and nearly 40 percent in the flagship race in Washington.

Distract: After the Planned Parenthood flip-flop and amid increasingly negative press, Brinker was named "Person of the Year" by the Walker School of Business and Technology at Webster University. The timing may have been more than coincidental: The school's primary benefactor was former President George W. Bush's great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, and Brinker was instrumental in backing Bush's campaigns. During the Bush administration, Brinker served as ambassador to Hungary.

Ignore: Komen records show a declining share of revenue allocated to research ("for the cure") even as revenue increased. In 2004, 27 percent of Komen's $147 million in revenue went to research. Last year, revenue reached $420 million, but only 15 percent was spent on research.

There is only so much mammograms can do. Early detection and awareness aren't everything. Approximately 40,000 women still die every year. If this is Komen's approach to finding a cure, it isn't working.

Conceal: In 2011, Komen launched its infamous "Promise Me" perfume. Named for the promise Brinker made to her sister as she was dying of breast cancer, the perfume was cross-promoted with a book of the same name. Brinker appeared on the Home Shopping Network to sell the "Promise Me Eau de Toilette Fragrance Gift Set." When Breast Cancer Action and others questioned Komen about the scent's carcinogenic potential, it defended the product but promised to reformulate it. There is no indication that this ever happened.

Exaggerate: The executive director of one Komen affiliate said she thinks of the 3,000 mammograms her group funded in 2010 "as 3,000 lives saved." Because funding is down substantially this year, she concluded that this means "over 1,000 mammograms that a woman may not be able to get." The insinuation: 1,000 lives lost.

This is a gross overstatement. There is no one-to-one ratio of mammograms to saved lives. In fact, a leading source of health-care analysis, the Cochrane Collaboration, found that "for every 2,000 women invited for [mammogram] screening throughout 10 years, one will have her life prolonged," and "10 healthy women ... will be treated unnecessarily."

The British Medical Journal recently criticized Komen for such distortions, noting, "there is a big mismatch between the strength of evidence in support of screening and the strength of Komen's advocacy for it."

Bring on the pink: Komen also uses slick marketing campaigns, pink ribbon-bedecked merchandise, coupons, and more to encourage event registration, as well as an excessively cheerful approach to a serious disease. The group doesn't seem to be aware of any dissonance between its celebratory pink parades and the marked declines in participation and donations.

When a young woman says, "I am Susan G. Komen for the Cure," and others cheer her on with smiles and ribbons, the message is that everything is peachy in the pink empire. But if Komen keeps throwing pink parties while it obfuscates, distracts, ignores, conceals, and exaggerates, it should be no surprise when it continues to lose credibility and support.


Gayle A. Sulik is a sociologist, a research associate at the University at Albany, and the author of "Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health" (Oxford University Press).

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