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The Pink Backlash: Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Awareness?

IMB_NFL_CrucialCatch This weekend I watched NFL football players with pink shoes ferociously attack each other. At every break, TV ads for all kinds of brands used varying shades of pink for the same cause. On my flight yesterday, as the cabin crew on my Delta flight checked our tickets, they were adorned with pink scarves and ribbons. This is October in America, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and pink is everywhere.

As a marketer, it is easy to love the multi-tiered campaign that has hundreds of brands (large and small) involved in using the color pink to represent support for Breast Cancer research, the women who are fighting the disease and the ones who have survived it. Based on the sheer volume of partners involved, this awareness campaign already occupies a unique place in the recent history of advocacy marketing and has inspired countless other advocacy groups and organizations to strive towards creating their own "pink-esque" campaigns.

When I looked at this campaign back in October of last year, I created a presentation to share some reasons why I thought (and still think) it was so effective, but also included a caution about how the campaign had already started to show signs of overexposure and a potential for losing its authenticity due to a sort of "pink overload" that may happen as more and more companies jumped on the bandwagon.

Last week I gave a phone interview to a reporter for a sports magazine who subsequently came out with a piece titled "We'll be the bad guys — we hate pink."  In his piece, he shares the cynical view that the average NFL fan is getting overloaded by the healthy dose of pink on everything from uniforms to hand towels. Is it all too much?

Where is the imaginary line between softly cajoling or convincing and full on yelling? The Pink campaign may occupy a unique place not only for its pervasiveness, but also for the chance that it offers for marketers so focused on generating awareness to shift the conversation towards effectiveness instead. No one can argue the Pink campaign has not been successful in raising awareness of breast cancer and (hopefully) the resulting behaviour change of women choosing to get tested regularly to spot the cancer early.

The question of this post is, should we be looking further than that? Is the net good of a campaign as popular as this increased by the dearth of partners who have embraced it, or is it headed towards a backlash of consumer cynicism from people who just want to watch their football without the pink towels and buy their products without constant pink reminders?

Share your thoughts in a comment below.  

10 thoughts on “The Pink Backlash: Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Awareness?”

  1. The big question for me, Rohit, is genuineness. With the NFL, it’s all about the pink, but is it really about the cause at all? I’ve seen nothing during NFL games that’s about the message. Only about the pink. “Look, we’re wearing pink, that proves we care. Now let’s play some football.” Maybe I’m not paying attention, but I can’t remember seeing one PSA, promo, or commercial during an NFL game that gives any information about the cause.

    And if the NFL really cares, and wearing shows that they really care, why not wear pink for the entire season? Pink for the NFL comes across as a gimmick because women are the fastest growing segment of fans. It just doesn’t seem genuine to me.

  2. I agree with Jay. Thing is, if you are a business or simply a fan protesting this overexposure, you can be portrayed as the bad guy who doesn’t care. We’re getting bolder in asking, “What about other cancers or other preventable deadly diseases?” It’s a legitimate question I think, if you’re not afraid of being demonized.

  3. Even more to the point, is awareness the most important goal to fighting breast cancer right now? I think awareness around breast cancer is well beyond that of most comparable illnesses and the campaign would be better off trying to capitalize on the ubiquity rather than investing so much time and effort into somewhat meaningless symbolism. This is where non-profit marketing is very different from other kinds of brand marketing. While Coca-Cola may need to stay top-of-mind to drive low conversion threshold sales, breast cancer groups may be better served to focus on a couple times of year where people are most likely to support the campaign monetarily and drive research.

  4. I wonder how much of the push back from the sports magazine is less about being tired of breast cancer awareness and more about gender constructs around the color pink, and uncomfortableness in combining something as “masculine” as sports with something as “feminine” as pink.

  5. Wonderful points Rohit. I watched a number of these campaign over the last few weeks in my local market. So much of these campaign’s successes rested on authenticity and intention. Just being pink doesn’t work anymore. You have to dive in and make a passionate attempt at this if you want to derive any benefits from it.

    In reality, businesses would be much better off if they were to find a cause that is truly in alignment with their brand or local community and stick to it.


  6. @Jay – The piece I was interviewed for echoed many of these sentiments. To be honest, I’m not that cynical about the motivations behind the campaign. The point I shared there that I think makes this campaign interesting is not how it allows the NFL to appeal to women, but rather how it may get men to care and pay more attention to a women’s disease. For many of these men, they are pushed by their wives or girlfriends to get tested for conditions and pay attention to their health. If this campaign can play a small role in reversing that and getting those same men to take that role to push the women in their lives to pay attention for the signs of breast cancer – it would be a big deal. You are definitely right, though, that this messaging or intent isn’t clear from the simple act of wearing pink shoes … so the action may not happen.

    @Amy – Asking this question is important, especially because the fear of being the “bad guy” as you note, so often keeps us from talking about these questions and improving our understanding of successful marketing. Without asking the question, there is the danger that many other people working in organizations with similar cause related missions might only look at the positive exposure of this campaign and see it as the ultimate campaign to try and recreate.

    @Peter – Good point about what the real goal should be, and how awareness by itself may not have the most impact in this case.

    @Kellie – That’s an interesting take, I hadn’t thought about that but it could be possible that some people are turned off purely by the color … or perhaps more specifically by the fact that the team branding and colors they are used to are being changed in a way they aren’t comfortable with.

    @Jason – Great point, thanks for the comment and the tweet.

  7. Wouldn’t prostate cancer awareness be a better fit for the NFL? Leading NFLers talking about prostate cancer etc. Much better promotion I think.
    Getting men to care even more about women specific causes is sexist and inconsiderate given the lack of awareness for men specific causes.

  8. Honestly, I think the breast cancer awareness industry has diluted the importance of raising money for research and increasing awareness. I find myself somewhat annoyed at the number of things have a pink ribbon on them, as if breast cancer is the only thing that kills women in this world.

    The NFL thing is so annoying because it just seems like pandering — we’re sensitive to breast cancer, ladies, can’t you see? and don’t you love football?

    I assume all that pink stuff was made with petrochemicals in China and then shipped over to the US. Why not just give that money to cancer research or treatment aid for poor women instead of making pink sh*t?

    It’s silly, and it totally makes me resentful. I kind of hate the breast cancer brand now. Pink ribbon = Puke.


  9. The “Pink” Campaign is not only to increase breast cancer awareness, but the campaign is also used to raise money for breast cancer research. I think that failing to put out as much pink advertising as possible would be a mistake. If making just one more thing pink pushes at least one more person to donate, then it’s worth it. I am a college volleyball player who’s team had a “Dig Pink” night in order to support breast cancer awareness, along with many other schools all around the country. Just from selling shirts we were able to raise $2500. We sent out many “pink” reminders about our Dig Pink match coming up which led many students and faculty to seek our my teammates and I so that they could help even just by buying a t-shirt. By buying a t-shirt they not only could donate money, but also could advertise the event by wearing their new t-shirt. If people feel too overloaded with pink, then that’s sad because this is about saving lives, not about whether people hate seeing the color pink or not.


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#1 WSJ & USA Today Bestselling Author

Rohit is the author of 9 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.


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