Each October, consumers find themselves awash in pink, the adopted color of breast cancer, as companies strive to outdo each other with pink product offerings and promises that a purchase means more money for breast cancer research.

Each October, consumers find themselves awash in pink, the adopted color of breast cancer, as companies strive to outdo each other with pink product offerings and promises that a purchase means more money for breast cancer research.

Funding for that research has surged since the 1980s, driven by the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, but opinions differ on how those dollars — and the marketing attached to them — should be directed for future use.

The National Institutes of Health spends twice as much money on breast cancer than on the runner-up, prostate cancer. In all, NIH plans to invest nearly $6 billion in cancer research this fiscal year, with $778 million earmarked for breast cancer.

With that kind of money flooding into research, it’s important for consumers who wish to support the cause to understand what products add money and which ones do not.

“The pink ribbon has been very important in really advocating the need to bring more resources to breast cancer research, increase access to treatment and de-stigmatize breast cancer as a whole,” said Karuna Jagger, executive director of San Francisco-based advocacy group Breast Cancer Action. “Today, we can no longer say awareness is the core issue.”

The pink appeal

Breast cancer has become an effective marketing machine for a company or its products, experts say.

It appeals to retailers because they want to be associated with a cause that’s important to consumers, and breast cancer is an obvious partnership.

“It’s a great cause, something everybody can get behind because, who doesn’t know someone who’s been touched in some way by breast cancer?” said Mike Gatti, executive director of the National Retail Federation’s marketing division. “What we’ve seen is that consumers want the brands that they shop to be part of the community, to play a role in the wellness of the community where they live.”

Gatti thinks pink marketing for retailers is “less about making money and more about letting customers know what they care about.”

But Mark Rosenbaum, the Kohl’s Corp. professor of retail marketing at Northern Illinois University, has a different theory.

“I don’t want to say anyone can ever do too much for cancer,” he said. “However, the breast cancer movement has become a well-publicized movement. Therefore, donations to breast cancer may overshadow other cancers.

“There are retailers that really demonstrate concern, and there are products where a breast cancer logo is simply a value add-on piece. Quite honestly, organizations report to shareholders in the end, so it is to sell products.”

Rosenbaum said retailers also are more likely to jump on the pink ribbon bandwagon because breast cancer has a higher survival rate than some other cancers. Even a disease like lung cancer still has the smoking stigma attached, which might make it harder to market.

“People can visually see the survivor with breast cancer and have empathy toward the survivors,” he said. “From a marketing perspective, women define themselves through their breasts — that begins in the fashion industry at an early age. Breast cancer weighs heavily on a women’s sense of self in that respect. Retailers who donate proceeds to a cause are working in the cause’s best interest, but they’re also connecting customers to part of an emotional marketing campaign.”

Money for the mission

To combat the glut of pink-themed merchandise, Breast Cancer Action launched “Think Before You Pink” nine years ago.

The campaign calls for more transparency in how donations in the name of breast cancer are spent and calls out specific “pinkwashers” who promote questionable products — like Komen partnering with KFC last year to sell fried chicken, or selling perfume this year with a worrisome chemical recipe.

“Are we saying that because there’s a need for more money for breast cancer that the ends justify the means? Should we raise money in any way possible?” Jagger said. “We argue that no, it’s not acceptable ... There’s no question that we need more resources. But are we doing what’s best with those resources?”

Big cause, big names

The American Cancer Society has several major partners this year for cause-related campaigns, including Ace Hardware, Chevrolet, Foot Locker, H&M and the NFL.

“We’re very careful about who we partner with because we want to make sure whoever we align with is somebody who supports our mission,” Richey said. “Bottom line is, we want consumers to know exactly how much money is going to the mission.”

Agencies are trying to set themselves apart from other pink marketers competing for money this month. The ACS is running with a “Pink Differently” theme this month, and the agency emphasizes that pink ribbons aren’t just for October and that it funds research and programs for all kinds of cancers.

“People will sometimes think that we’re all one organization,” Richey said. “All kinds of breast cancer organizations do good work, but we know that we’re the leader in the fight against breast cancer. But it definitely can be difficult to rise above the fray.”

Community needs

Susan G. Komen for the Cure has invested $1.9 billion in breast cancer education, screening and research programs during the past 30 years, said Michael Ziener, executive director of Komen’s Chicago affiliate.

Ziener said Komen’s partnerships with the likes of General Mills, Yoplait and Kraft –– all Chicago-based companies –– help raise awareness for breast cancer on a national level, and the organization works to make sure its operational dollars aren’t more than 25 percent of its budget to maximize donor funding.

Every two years, Komen does community-needs surveys, and the latest Chicago-area research revealed major access-to-care issues, gaps in the quality of care for black women and a higher incidence of Hispanic women being diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. So Komen will focus its Chicago grant funding in those key areas.

“There is awareness, but what’s not happening is women taking action,” Ziener said. “At the age of 40, women are still not getting mammograms.”

Ziener said Komen holds its brand very close — it issues funding levels to donors who want to use the agency’s name and logo to market the campaigns.

Reach staff writer Melissa Westphal at mwestpha@rrstar.com.