If you watched the Monday Night Football game between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, you couldn't help but notice a number of players were wearing bright pink shoes or gloves.
And you knew what that meant.
In last week's column, I discussed the power and importance of branding in the marketing of goods and services - and all successful brands are associated with a logo that triggers immediate recognition. Whether it's for Starbucks or Nike or Volkswagen, we know exactly what certain symbols and colors represent.
And we knew what the football players were representing because, over the last 20 years, the color pink, and particularly the pink ribbon, has become the international logo for breast cancer awareness.
It is a remarkable achievement. Not only has the color become the cause, but countless millions of individuals, companies and other organizations eagerly display it, especially during October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. You can find those pink ribbons on everything from cellphones to candy bars, handbags to hairspray. Smith and Wesson is offering a 9mm pistol with a pink handle grip.
While no one questions the importance of the cause, some have grown increasingly uncomfortable with what they see as attempts to profit from its symbol.
Earlier this week, Associated Press writer Kevin Begos explored that growing concern.
"At one time, pink was the means," Karuna Jaggar, executive director of the San Francisco group Breast Cancer Action, told Begos. "Now, it's almost become the end in itself. In its most simplistic forms, pink has become a distraction. You put a pink ribbon on it, people stop asking questions."
Begos notes that some activists have even coined a new word: pinkwashing. "That's when a company or organization does a pink breast cancer promotion, but at the same time sells and profits from pink-theme products," he writes.
Roughly speaking, 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of the pink ribbon. The first significant use of the symbol was in 1991, when the Susan G. Komen Foundation handed pink ribbons out to every participant in a race for breast cancer survivors in New York City. In 1992, the ribbon was adopted as the official symbol of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Concerns about commercialization of the pink ribbon are not new. As far back as 1994, Breast Cancer Action launched a "think before you pink campaign," urging shoppers to make sure they know how much and where their money is going before buying pink goods.
Other critics have noted that corporations seized on breast cancer because, unlike other diseases, such as lung cancer and AIDS, it carried no negative connotations related to lifestyle or personal behavior and thus was a "safe" cause to adopt.
In 1996, Samantha King, a professor of health studies at Queen's University in Ontario, published "Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy," a book critical of the way corporations had begun to use pink ribbons to boost their own images, and profits.
King told Begos that people warned her that she'd get hate mail for writing critically about the pink campaigns.
"And in fact the opposite was true," King says. "I had underestimated the level of alienation that many women felt."
King criticizes the Komen Foundation for partnering with companies selling products that many consider unhealthy - including a deal with KFC involving a pink bucket of fried chicken. Breast Action objected to a perfume introduced this year by the Komen Foundation because it allegedly "contains some possibly toxic or hazardous ingredients."
Begos reports that Komen's scientific and medical advisers "didn't believe there was any problem," but that Komen is reformulating the perfume without the criticized ingredients "to allay any concerns."
Overall, however, the Komen Foundation defends the pink campaign because it has dramatically increased awareness of breast cancer and delivered critically needed funds.
"Research doesn't come cheap," Leslie Aun, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Susan G. Komen for the Cure, told Begos. "We need to raise money and we're not apologetic about it."
While some feel they are drowning in a sea of pink, "We don't think there's enough pink," Aun says. "We're able to make those investments in research because of programs like that."
Both sides have a point. The pink ribbons have raised both awareness and money for an excellent cause. Many philanthropies, medical and nonmedical, would be thrilled to have such a powerful asset - and some others do.
And certainly no one should doubt that those football players have a sincere commitment to eradicating breast cancer. They are to be admired for putting that message before millions of viewers.
At the same time, others undoubtedly have looked at the pink and seen green, lured by profit as much as good will. As Jaggar asked, is it worth buying a $30 pink bag or bra if only a buck or so will be passed on to research? Might a direct donation make more sense?
By all means, wear the color, support the cause.
But don't get pinkwashed.
Rich Lewis' email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.