No Pot of Gold at the End of This Rainbow

pot of gold

First green washing, now pink washing. What color of the rainbow is next? (RED)™ products. Yellow ribbons? "Cause" marketing is big business says Joanna Weiss in today's Boston Globe, writing about products draped in pink packaging to signify that the vendor/manufacturer is supporting the fight against breast cancer. Weiss quotes other cancer cure advocates who claim that the only big winners are the purveyors of pink products.

The application of pink — in the name of raising money and steering women toward the radiologist’s office — does seem to get broader and cheerier each year. Now, we have NFL balls decorated with pink ribbons and world landmarks bathed in pink light, from the White House to the ancient Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza. We have consumer products marked with pink ribbons and the sometimes-vague promise that some proceeds fund “breast cancer research."’ We can buy pink-themed yogurt canisters, pink alcoholic lemonade, pink-ribbon Roomba vacuum cleaners, and pink vibrators with the slogan “Sensuality, Sexuality, Survival.’’ There are pink rosary beads, pink mezuzahs, and pink hijabs.

The skeptics have raised their hackles particularly over a campaign at KFC promoting a pink basket of fried chicken which is tied to obesity which is in turn tied to increased risk of breast cancer. Pink washing has much in common with green washing. The consumer gets a false sense of doing something meaningful from the purchase. Often the only truly meaningful act would be to forgo the purchase entirely and donate the whole price to whatever cause is being promoted. And in the case of KFC pink baskets or sustainable or green cars, skip the purchase altogether and go with an alternate that is not as harmful.

Except for a few brands that contribute part of their sales proceeds to green causes, green items in one's market basket add to the bottom line of the maker, but have little impact on nature. Nature is the "person" that needs curing. Neither forms of "cause" marketing passes very much information about the nature of the problem. The transaction may make the actor feel good, but does little to correct the basic market failure that comes when a buyer lacks critical information about the external impacts. Impacts that are not priced and make the transaction appear cheaper than it really is.

The money collected from these marketing campaigns may reach and affect the cause. (RED)™ claims to have directed $150 million to AIDS victims in Africa. But again, forgoing the purchase and sending the savings would have a much larger impact. It's easier and less emotional and lasting to buy something you want and get a side benefit than in putting pen to paper or punching in the 12 digits of a credit card. You will at least revisit your contributions when you balance your check book, but the memory of the pink basket or where the portion of your new $145 Emporio Armani (PRODUCT)RED T-Shirt is going fades pretty fast. Money is important for sure, but it is no substitute for informed action, especially when the products involved may be contributing to the problems.

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