I bet everybody’s done it: Made a purchase in part because some of the proceeds went to a particular cause. I’ll admit to some pink kitchen gadgets, running gear, two lovely champagne flutes, and one of my favorite watches. It’s certainly not hard to find brands who’ve affiliated themselves with the pink ribbon and, presumably, breast cancer causes.

The subject of pinkwashing, or the exploitation of consumers’ emotional ties to breast cancer to sell pink ribbon-themed products, has caught my attention a few times over the years. The most recent debates were triggered by the Kentucky Fried Chicken “Buckets for the Cure” program, which intended to raise millions of dollars for Susan G. Komen for the Cure through the sale of a pink bucket of chicken. I’m not a huge KFC fan, and didn’t pay much attention beyond thinking it was as a bit of an odd partnership. But then it initiated a couple of pretty passionate threads among my Facebook friends, and I found myself thinking about pinkwashing a bit more.

My take on pink ribbon marketing campaigns, this one in particular, is pretty simple:

  1. This company is choosing to make a not-insignificant donation to a highly regarded organization through the sale of their product.
  2. Their customers will be exposed to information on breast cancer.
  3. As consumers, we should make informed decisions on the products we choose to buy – the operative word being choose.

The agreement with KFC called for a $1M guaranteed donation to Komen. That equals $250K for breast cancer programs in 120 US affiliate communities, and $750K for national research and community programs. According to the company’s website near the end of the program, that amount had almost been quadrupled to $3.7M. That comes over $900K to the affiliates and $2.8M to research. That’s a lot of money.

Money aside, I think people overlook another aspect of the partnership. Information on breast cancer was available in 5,000 restaurants, in thousands of communities across the US. I live in a large metropolitan area, and I’m used to seeing pink ribbons and breast cancer messaging in department stores and shops year-round. We have one of the most effective Komen affiliates here, and are the home to one of the country’s foremost cancer research centers, the Hutch. It’s hard to be unaware of breast cancer in Seattle.

But the same can’t be said for Mount Vernon. Or Aberdeen. Komen is a large organization, but it only has 120 chapters in the entire country. It just doesn’t have the resources to distribute breast cancer literature in every community, in every state. I know how hard it is for the Puget Sound Affiliate to reach the women in its 16-county service area, even with with its dedicated staff and volunteers. They’ve got their work cut out for them in trying to reach such a large geographic region. So I think of the number of impressions the breast cancer awareness message got through that particular program, through 5,000 KFC locations. It’s a lot.

As a part of a large corporation (Yum! Brands, Inc.), KFC certainly has a responsiblity to their shareholders to be profitable. But they also have a stated goal to be a responsible corporate citizen. I really want to give them the benefit of the doubt and consider that the program wasn’t entirely self-serving. Maybe they really do want to help out a cause, even if they are purveyors of deep-fried fast food.

There are some who don’t agree. The breast cancer watchdog group Think Before You Pink devoted a page to the KFC/Komen debate and raised many good points, ones that I think apply to any purchasing decision consumers make. In a nutshell, you should know who you’re buying from, and know where your dollars are going.

Informed consumers know buying a pink bucket of chicken for $15 isn’t going to make as big a dent as donating $15 to a breast cancer organization. But if you’re a KFC customer who was inclined to buy a bucket of chicken during the program, maybe you thought about breast cancer when you made your purchase. And maybe, just maybe, some of the research grants funded by the pink bucket will get us a little closer to a cure for breast cancer.

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