Everything is About to Turn Pink – It’s Breast Cancer Month

I don’t write in first person on this blog, but now that it’s October and we’re about to be bombarded with pink products raising awareness for breast cancer month, I can’t help but think about a personal anecdote.

I was in a job interview a few years ago and was given a business case study to consider and respond to. The case had to do with a large “big box” store trying to compete with another large big box store. The former had always been #2, trying to catch up with the latter. I was asked what I would do to try and take over the #1 position. After an extremely painful 20 minutes of coming up with ideas, asking questions, and generally being shut down and embarassed, I was told that the answer was that I should settle for being #2.

What?! Never! Outrageous! But apparently, according to the man who sat accross from me at the interview table, #2 in the world of big box stores ain’t all that bad. (I think the stores were Walmart and Target, in case you were curious)

The story comes to mind as I often have a similar discussion about breast cancer awareness vs heart disease awareness. How is it possible that the breast cancer marketing machine is able to get manly NFL players to don pink socks when heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined? How is it possible that despite the massive efforts groups like WomenHeart, Sister to Sister and Go Red for Women have put in to developing huge campaigns around raising awareness for women with heart disease, that seemingly half of the products in the grocery store bare the pink ribbon symbol?

It seems crazy, right? But it makes sense.

Breast cancer affects women and uses pink, a color closely associated with women, in its marketing campaign. Heart disease affects both men and women and uses the unisex color red. The feeling that evil breast cancer is out to get women creates cause for herds of rallying women (and men) to show support for their sex.

Oh, and breast cancer is cancer! Cancer is scary. Cancer is something that is diagnosed in an instant, and something that you cannot control. These may not sound like large differences, but they are differences that generate a much stronger emotional reaction than heart disease, which is often a product of poor lifestyle choices and tends to build slowly over time.

As commercial companies put their marketing dollars behind ideas that are set to make them more money, it makes sense that they’d back breast cancer. Pink packages get noticed. Breast cancer evokes a strong emotional reaction. It’s a profitable equation.

Now, I say these things not to disparage the great work of organizations focusing on heart disease, but to say that perhaps the conversation shouldn’t be ”how do we become #1?” but that maybe “#2 ain’t all that bad.” If heart disease can maintain the #2 position in the public eye and more women become educated about their risk of heart disease, that’s pretty good! Maybe that’s pessimistic, but it was my thought this morning as I read a press release about actress Christina Applegate’s new Asics pink running shoe line.


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