I don’t know why I hate awareness ribbons as much as I do. It can’t be a simple matter of their ubiquity, because there are lots of things whose ubiquity I rather appreciate. Like air, or pumpkin spiced treats in the Autumn. It certainly can’t be because they’re inherently bad, because they obviously aren’t. It can’t be because they encourage people to do stupid things, either, because as far as I can tell they don’t do that.
But I do hate awareness ribbons.
Which is a shame, because awareness ribbons are icons of our collective struggles against a variety of misfortunes. Which makes detesting them a particularly sticky subject. I should point out, therefore, that one thing I definitely don’t hate is any amount of research that can help ease someone’s pain. So what is it about awareness ribbons?
|© 2010 Justin Gifford
Well first thing’s first: do the things work? Okay, that’s actually the second question. The first one should be, ‘what are they supposed to do?’ What are they supposed to do, anyway? Raise awareness, I guess. But seriously, have you heard of AIDS? You have? Good, then you’re aware. Problem solved. How ’bout breast cancer? Same thing. So obviously awareness ribbons don’t raise awareness, or if, preposterously, they had managed to alert a few people of the existence of global problems, they can only do that once, so the purpose is short lived.
Perhaps it’s more appropriate to refer to them by their other moniker, ‘charity ribbons.’ Perhaps the real incentive to wear them proudly is to encourage your peers – and anybody else who happens to see your bumper or backpack or your dress at the latest gala – is to encourage donations to the various foundations that produce these ribbons. Seems like a pretty passive way of encouraging donations. Essentially, you’re just tacking it onto yourself and forgetting about it, the hope being that somebody will happen to spot it and find themselves itching to hand over a few bucks.
The idea is sound, in that the abysmally-low chances of it working are still better than zero, which is the chance it would work if you didn’t wear the ribbon. But the chances may not actually be all that much greater than zero anyway. By passively wearing these ribbons, we as a society have saturated our attention with them to the point that they are no longer eye catching. Essentially, the ubiquity of charity ribbons seems to have driven us to stop noticing them, so the chances of them actually encouraging a donation are even poorer than you would think—and they were pretty poor to begin with.
What, then? Ah, I thought to myself, the ribbons’ purpose must not be to provoke donations at all! They must themselves be the donations! The manufacturers of these ribbons must be the foundations themselves! I checked. They aren’t. Then they must donate the proceeds to the foundations they support. They don’t. A particularly nasty tactic used by advertisers is the promise of some proceeds dedicated to supporting awareness. Well, considering that just by displaying a huge swatch of pink all over the packaging the products are ‘raising awareness,’ it seems that aside from covering the cost of the pink ink, manufacturers don’t really have to do anything further with the proceeds. Except pocket them.
Even when they purport to donate a portion of proceeds, consumers are rarely told what portion (often it’s uselessly small), or to what foundation they will be going. Understandably, some proceeds have to go to the upkeep of the effort; that’s simple economics. But then the foundation has to take a percentage of that donation to cover their costs, so in the end it seems better to cut out the middle man and donate directly to the charity.
If You Feel Aware, Are You?
If the ribbons themselves aren’t really an excellent source of income, helpless consumers are left to figure that awareness ribbons are really only good for raising awareness. So now we can go back to our question—do the things work? Do they raise awareness? In a word, yes.
Some people I’ve spoken with contend that the ribbons really do work, in that they cause people to be more, well, aware of the problem—the implication being that increased awareness yields an increased willingness to take appropriate measures to avert the misfortune. The Pink Ribbons, in especial, tend to be noticed, and some women have told me that they feel more likely to take proper precautions as a result of them. I can’t really discern anybody’s underlying motivation, but my suspicion is that the ribbons had little to do with anything.
In the first place, the ribbons, while a convenient visual shorthand, serve no actual function except to return attention to the issue. That is, these ribbons – red, yellow, pink, or otherwise – are only one (albeit very visual) piece of far huger information campaigns. The claim is that the ribbons encourage precautions or support, but I can only assume that they don’t. A ribbon cannot inform anybody about how to handle any of the various causes they support. If, for instance, a pink ribbon encourages women to examine themselves, it is only because they have received advice on how to undertake that examination from another source. The ribbon serves only as a reminder.
I decided to start asking around; surely I couldn’t be the only one who thought awareness ribbons were not only idiotic but counterproductive. I didn’t have to search far. I asked my stepfather Tony, in that off-hand, clever way that real journalists do when they don’t want to reveal their intentions or color an interviewee’s perception of the subject, what he thought of awareness ribbons.
Tony: I had one on my old car.
Me: Why’d you buy it?
Tony: I bought it because I support the troops.
Me: Were you trying to support a cause that would help the troops?
Tony: I don’t believe in that shit. I just bought it because it was there. That’s the problem with these things: they show your support, but it’s only skin deep.
Good stuff, but Tony’s a grumpy old man. I thought I’d go a little further, perhaps try to find some sympathy. Since we were on our way to help out my grandmother, Mrs. Cook, I thought that’d be a good start. I had but to say ‘awareness ribbons.’
Mrs. Cook: Aggravates me to death to see them all over the place! Pink, red, yellow, blue, green…I don’t know. It all started because of that song, ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round an Old Oak Tree.’*
And then, after a short lull in the admittedly casual conversation, and without any real provocation:
Mrs. Cook: What really gets me is when they say if you buy it they’ll donate 10¢ to research.†
Wow! Excellent stuff, but not exactly what I was looking for. I had assumed that, short of actually trying to support a charity, people bought these things because they felt they were ‘doing the right thing.’ You know—they buy a ribbon because it’s a good cause, and – who knows? – it may help out a charity. The forces at work here, I’ve long surmised, were insufficient education on the specifics of the subject, and sheer laziness.
* My dad never fails, at the first mention of ribbons, Tony Orlando, oak trees, or the color yellow, to regale us with the story of his attendance of a concert at which Mr. Orlando, having sold the rights to the lyrics, he couldn’t perform his own song. The poor bastard.
† This quote is win-win for me: it exactly reflects my suspicions (and shows I’m not the only one suspecting them), but, moreover, it gives me a chance to use the cent symbol, which I almost never do.
It is a particularly nasty byproduct of our cause-laden society. Wherever we go we are accosted from all sides by charitable causes of every variety. Most of the time we pick out one or two that really matter to us, but because we are so jaded by the sight of them, new ones generally fail to impress us. Worse, the overwhelming array of charities facing us subtly trains us to do the bare minimum most of the time—we have to spread our donations out amongst many worthy causes!
In a way, the barrage of pleas does get us to pitch in. Well, we buy a ribbon, because it’s cheap, available, and as far as we know, goes to a good cause. What happens then is that now we’ve shown our support. We did our good deed, and now we’re finished. If we have the opportunity to help out yet again, well, I suspect we may be less receptive to the idea, having already expended some resources on this one particular cause.
Think about it in monetary terms (everybody else does so in this game, after all). Everybody has a limited amount of resources to spend on everything there is to spend things on. Individuals do, churches do, corporations do, and nonprofit organizations do. You just can’t spend more than you have. So let’s assume Steve has €20.00 to spend on charity. He’s a churchgoing man, so €4.00 goes to there. At the behest of the cashier at his local grocer he donates €2.00 to something he’s not entirely clear on, but there’s a forgettable coupon in it for him so he does it so he doesn’t seem like a jerk for saying no. He goes to the nearby Buy-n-Large only to face an adorable set of siblings selling cookies—€6.00. Steve’s heard about this conflict that’s been going on, and he thinks the troops are really brave, so he buys a magnetic ribbon for them whilst waiting in queue. €1.00. You know what? Make it two: he’s got two cars.
Keeping up? Good, ’cause I haven’t been. My point is that now he’s only got a couple bucks left by the time he sees a stand selling care packages to send to the troops. €10.00. Uh oh, out of money—good thing he bought those ribbons, though; that should do the trick. He does support them, after all, right? He’s got the badges to prove it!
The same thing happens with things like Earth Day. So many times something that starts out with great intentions – and gets great results, even – runs out of steam and ultimately ends up diverting people’s attention from doing what would really help. And while we’re being distracted from important things, let’s just take a moment to consider this information taken from the American Heart Association:
In fact, coronary heart disease, which causes heart attack, is the single leading cause of death for American women. Many women believe that cancer is more of a threat, but they’re wrong. Nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.
Narrow that down to breast cancer alone and the differences is far greater. Still, it pays to remember that mortalities due to breast cancer have, in Western nations, been steadily declining, no doubt largely because of successful awareness campaigns. It’s important to differentiate between an informational campaign, which can help people detect or avoid problems early, from awareness ribbons, which are essentially meaningless ribbons.
When the red AIDS ribbons kicked off the trend, education campaigns were already in full swing; the ribbons just let celebrities (and shortly thereafter, their fans) show how classy they were. Still, women are terrified of breast cancer (I would be too, no doubt, especially considering that it can affect men), but don’t know the first thing about heart disease. A powerful educational campaign might just put a dent in some of the lifestyle choices that are part of the problem.
Pink Ribbons Are All About the Green
While I was researching,‡ I came across an interesting term – pinkwashing – to describe the corporate misappropriation of a charitable symbol for
nefarious capitalistic purposes. It turned out that I was dead on in my assumption that lots of people are sick of pink. Within the first minute on Google I found loads of articles decrying the practice. Breasts are big. Err, popular. What I mean is, they’re big business…§
Now my understanding is that pinkwashing applies specifically to products that use ingredients linked with breast cancer while purporting to support cancer research, but I think by extension it can be applied to any use of Pink whose primary goal is marketing rather than charity. If that’s the case, there’s an awful lot of pinkwashing going on. I’ve long tried to perceive the connection between, say, cancer and my morning Cheerios (satisfied that there are none, I continue to eat cheerios, blissfully unaware). It’s a marketing thing.
Given the choice between two identical products, their only difference being a pink ribbon, who would buy the unadorned one? Especially when somebody else is around to see them being uncharitable? Nobody. Moreover, when KFC, for instance, decides to sell Pink buckets, the choice is taken out of the consumer’s hands. I’m not suggesting it’s a bad thing that purchases support a charity by default – if they do – just that if a corporation is willing to donate that amount to a charitable foundation, they should be a little more transparent about it.
Again, it comes down to simple economics. No company can donate anything to anybody if they don’t make the bottom line—simple. My poor brother Nate was working at KFC when the ‘boob buckets’ happened,‖ and he thought KFC’s was a pretty strange model. He told me that while the majority of his customers didn’t show one preference or another, many asked specifically for the pink buckets, unaware that all buckets were participants in the program. Still, maybe that demonstrates that some people sought out the chicken who otherwise wouldn’t have. Good news for the charity; better news for KFC. Consumers should have given the money directly to an organization and then got a dinner they actually liked.
Still, KFC did end up donating something to the tune of $4.2 million, which, despite being less than half of their target donation, is still pretty impressive. I’m guessing, based on the general apathy of the customers, even if the honest supporters had chosen to donate directly instead of buying chicken, that amount would never have been raised without a corporate marketing scheme to back it up. Nevertheless, having set the record for the highest donation ever, KFC hasn’t offered any indication that it will repeat the program.
We need, as always, to avoid letting our good-natured skepticism degrade into cynicism. While there has certainly been a good amount of backlash against, say, Buckets for the Cure, there’s no use arguing with results. In fact, every negative reaction I read involves KFC’s notoriously unhealthy offerings and brings up the then-recent release of the fowl Double Down—truly an attack ad pullum. FiveThirtyEight did an interesting comparison of similar offerings’ health values. Whether the charitable gains are ill-gotten can be disputed, but they done been got.
‡ As always, by ‘researching,’ I mean cherry-picking the data for claims that would corroborate my conclusion.
§ Given that Pink ribbons seem to be the most widely-circulated, the majority of criticism seems to be leveled against them in particular, but the arguments hold true across the board. I use them as an example because I get to type ‘breasts’ over and over. Heh heh heh.
‖ Unfortunately for him, he was treated to an admittedly heated discourse on the subject—one of many predecessor conversations to this blog post.
It isn’t my intention to offend or upset anybody. My fiancée usually keeps my fervor in check; in my zeal to promote constant, unending analysis and free thought, I tend to get a little excited and often come off a little too strongly. This can be a sensitive subject, and I don’t want anybody to get the impression that this is a laughing matter to me, or that I’m completely callous. In fact, the only reason I do discuss things like this is because they are so important to me. I would hate to think of someone passing by a genuine opportunity to help another because they got hoodwinked into buying a trendy product that doesn’t really serve a purpose.
I believe in the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and there is no doubt that awareness campaigns have drastically reduced mortality rates (at least in Western nations) of many particularly insidious ailments.
But I also believe that people should be allowed to grieve however they want, or celebrate however they want, or struggle however they want. If ribbons are their way of showing that they’re proud and supportive and full of encouragement, as yellow ribbons
often are, then they should do it proudly! But let’s cut the crap and call them support ribbons and let families who are struggling support each other in their own ways, without turning it into a cheap marketing ploy. And by cheap I mean very costly.