The Unintended Consequences of Pink: Reorienting the Cause

In April, Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana hosted a screening of the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. followed by a panel discussion a week later about how the culture of breast cancer impacts individuals and society. The event, organized by the Cancer, Culture, and Community program, was truly an effort to move beyond awareness! Colleagues formerly unknown to one other sat together in conversation, shared their views and ideas, and left, some of them, with plans to collaborate in the future. Days following the event audience members expressed how profoundly their perceptions of breast cancer and the pink ribbon had changed; they now wanted to look deeper.

I’m pleased to provide the following brief synopsis of our “Reorienting the Cause” event, with the hope that others will be moved to host something similar in their own communities.


The panel included moderator Arden Bement—Chief Global Affairs Officer Emeritus at Purdue University, David A. Ross Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Nuclear Engineering at Purdue University, and Director Emeritus of the Global Policy Research Institute; Samantha King (ADVOCACY AND ANALYSIS)—Author of Pink Ribbons, Inc., Associate Professor, Associate Director, and Graduate Coordinator of the School of Kinesiology and Health Sciences at Queens University in Ontario, Canada; Phil Low (CANCER RESEARCHER)—Ralph C. Corely Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry at Purdue University, and Founder of Endocyte and On Target; Sophie Lelièvre (PRIMARY PREVENTION)—Associate Professor of Cancer Pharmacology at Purdue University, Leader of the Breast Cancer Discovery Group of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research, and Co-founder of the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition; Peter Schwartz (MEDICAL ETHICS)Associate Professor of Medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine, and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts ; Moira Gunn (BIG DATA)Host of Public Radio’s Tech Nation and its regular segment, BioTech Nation; and Susan Rowe (CAUSE MARKETING)Executive Vice President and Communication Planning Director of Rowe Media.



Moderator Bement asked each panelist to submit in advance a rhetorical question they would answer in a ten minute presentation. He divided the group into science and ethics (Sophie LelièvrePhil Low, and Peter Schwartz), and the cause marketing/business group (Samantha KingMoira Gunn, and Susan Rowe. Using this strategy, the presentations wove together related topics and took the audience on a comprehensible journey through the complex breast cancer terrain.

Sophie Lelièvre, whose work focuses on epigenetics, argued that research into cancer prevention is rather sparse because to prevent cancer in a population scientists needed first to understand the genetic makeup and environmental factors affecting that population. This would require tissue banking and collaborative organization on a level we have not yet seen. Phil Lowe then reported that immune system augmentation and individualized cancer treatments were key areas, among others, on the frontier of cancer research. Ethicist and practicing physician Peter Schwartz explained that rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to screening mammography, statistics could be used to make clear recommendations about which groups of women would have a greater chance of benefitting from the test. Panelists explained too that the rate of breast cancer from hormone replacement therapy would continue to decline due to decreased usage, but that the rate overall was not likely to decelerate due to other factors.

Moving on to advocacy and awareness, Samantha King gave an overview of popular campaigns, such as Komen for the Cure, that put business partnerships at the forefront of organizational activities. She stressed that cause marketing places consumers as the responsible parties for ensuring “progress” against disease. As Gunn pointed out, cause marketing sits at the intersection of business and research practices that involve thorny ethical issues. Business, charged with maximizing profits, does not necessarily address moral or ethical issues while the push for “big data” at federal, university, and corporate levels often treads on murky ethical ground. All human activities could theoretically be converted to cause marketing models, creating a need for ethical guidelines along with research that is profitable enough to fund new projects.

Phil Lowe reiterated that research itself is based on business models where investors want to see a relatively quick return on investment. As a result, many ideas enter the “death valley” of research for lack of funds. When Arden Bement asked whether there would be a rebalancing of research from treatment to prevention, Peter Schwartz believed there would be a shift in terms of clinical focus on care with patients towards prevention. Overall, panelists thought budget constraints would be a limiting factor, and one panelist did not think it would be possible at all.

“A Wake-Up Call”

As the discussion continued and the audience began to engage, the seemingly opposing sides of the issues came together in an interesting way. Moira Gunn likened the influence of Samantha King’s book Pink Ribbons, Inc. on the breast cancer movement to that of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on the environmental movement — a wake-up call! She and Gunn feel cause marketing is relatively new and in its early, formative stages. Yet there are successful cause marketing campaigns that make a positive difference, such as the Red Campaign for AIDS research. As a business model, each Red partner company creates a product with the Product Red logo, licensed by Product Red, an opportunity to increase revenue with a portion of those profits donated to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Red is not a charity; Red is a business. Here consumer spending has made a real difference regardless of the motivation. The amalgamation of the two is an example of “ethical consumerism.” The elephant in the room is whether business marketing looks more and more like philanthropic activity, perhaps taking it over and even replacing it.

In addition to ethical practices in fundraising, the ethics of health care distribution came into play regarding the future of individualized care, prevention, and research. If it becomes possible to get a complete genomic scan to learn about genetics markers of disease, for instance, will everyone be able to afford the individual treatments recommended? Panelists discussed the potential of online prevention toolkits, epigenetic studies of certain populations, new therapies in the early stages of development, and the dire need to regulate toxins in the environment.

The lively discussion opened new territory in breast cancer awareness. I hope it sparks a shift in how we will address advocacy and the culture of Pink at Purdue University, and beyond.

evansKathy Evans is an artist, librarian, and videographer working in the Patti and Rust Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts at Purdue University. A Visual Resources Librarian, she has a BFA in Printmaking from Indiana University, MA in Painting from Purdue, and an MLS from Indiana University. She has a long-standing interest in medicine and the body, with an interest in advocacy in women’s health issues, especially midwifery and prenatal care. Following her mother’s diagnosis with breast cancer in 1987, Kathy was exposed to the culture of breast cancer, treatment and survivorship. As a nurse, her mother ran breast cancer support groups for women in Northwest Indiana, seeking to bring programming with an educational focus to encourage health and healing.  Kathy became part of the Cancer, Culture and Community project at Purdue as a way to honor her mother’s work and partner with her in the spirit of inquiry, advocacy, and the exploration of critical health issues through cross disciplinary collaborations, and the through the arts.

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