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#Pinkverts: The state of breast cancer cause marketing in October 2011 (nudity)

#Pinkverts: The state of breast cancer cause marketing in October 2011 (nudity)

I first heard the term “pinkwashing” in 2009. The CSR committee at Acart Communications, the social issues marketing agency where I work, was discussing what we could do for October. I suggested we wear pink bras over our clothing for fun, awareness and solidarity. Some in the agency objected. In the end, we went ahead, but the event was surprisingly polarizing. During our discussions, someone sent me an online article on pinkwashing.

Two years later, I am seeing many disconcerting trends in advertising, fundraising and promotion during “Pink October”. They’re the same ones that were around two years ago, but they just keep growing. That’s why I suggested we create a category for this year’s ads, “Pinkverts”, so that we could focus on the trends, bad habits and best practices.

Breast cancer attacks a part of the body with a lot of biological and sociological focus. So, as is done in fashion and lifestyle brands, sex in advertising rears its throbbing head. The cause, it seems, gives a lot of models, art directors and advertisers licence to do sexy nudes for a cause.


As with PETA, Breast Cancer Awareness seems to be a way for lesser-known celebrities to get publicity by going topless for the camera.

There were some interesting uses of nudity, however. A French ad presented frank and honest nudity to the viewer with a sneer at more sexualized campaigns.


As well, Canada’s Rethink Breast Cancer hijacked breast obsession to get their message across with topless models acting as human billboards in Toronto. What’s the difference? In toplessness, “sexy” is all in the context.

With all the crossover between sex and cancer, perhaps it’s no surprise that the sex industry takes the opportunity to pinkwash itself. There are two strains of this. One is aimed at men, with Playboy and even a phone sex line claiming to support the cause.


The other is aimed at women, with breast-cancer themed sex toys and even a line of sexual products aimed at survivors.

Another area that continues to grow is youth-oriented branded awareness. The Keep-A-Breast Foundation is a leader in this, with their “I Love Boobies” bracelets continuing to enrage adults (and therefore prove their coolness to kids.) As well, Feel Your Boobies, Boobyball and Coppafeel continue to spread their influence. The themes are cheeky and childish, to be sure. But their playfulness is a nice break from the more earnest or inappropriate sexuality.

I think the most irksome trend, however, is “corporate social responsibility” programs that do little or nothing for the cause while bathing the brand in a virtuous pink glow. Their message is “buy”: bras, ballet slippers, t-shirts, cashmere… even a car. And yet many donate only a small part of their profit to awareness or research.


You can’t talk about Breast Cancer Awareness Month without talking about the behemoth of the cause: Susan G. Komen for the Cure. And yet, Komen has been singled out for its own retail pinkwashing in the form of its apparently-toxic signature scent.

My favourite “campaigns” of this month, however, were not marketing at all. They were art.


The Scar Project, Object Breast Cancer and KAB’s Breast Casts all do what art does best, which is to get people thinking differently about the human condition.


This post is dedicated to the memory of Scar Project model Jolene, who has recently left us.

I am Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. Read more