I made the mistake of grocery-shopping on Saturday, a.k.a. Race for the Cure Day. Rest assured that the shelves were stocked (and the endcaps capped) with pink versions of every product I've ever considered buying in my lifetime and several I haven't. You know the drill. Buy shit and the producers of said shit will donate 10 cents to the Susan G. Komen Blah Blah Blah. That's why you see racks of pink soup cans and pink santokus and pink hammers and pink flash drives and pink hair irons and a pink Hummer and Ken Griffey Jr. swinging a damn pink bat.

The phenomenon of pinkwashing – and the reality that this amounts to little more than free marketing under the guise of charity – helps manufacturers and retailers far more than it helps cancer research. Why else would they use this Marketing via Causes strategy instead of tax-deductible corporate philanthropy? But since many others have already made that point (it's so egregious that even Time Frickin' Magazine slammed the practice) I won't belabor it here.

What bothers me is how this fits into a larger trend in our society, the end result of 25 years of unrestrained free market worship. Every desire, every idea for social change, every impulse toward political participation, and every psychological need can be filled exactly the same way: by buying shit. Your desire to be an individual, to be a nonconformist, to change the world, to do good deeds….all can be accomplished with a trip to the mall. Everything, including the idea of doing charitable works, is a commodity. Thomas Frank has written about this seduction at great length (The Conquest of Cool and Commodify Your Dissent) and I recommend his commentary highly.

Worried about turning into your father or a bland mid-life Organization Man? Buy Nikes, a Harley Davidson, and some $225 lawn seats to see the latest shamelessly mercenary Reunion Tour of 60s/70s icons. Worried about neo-colonialism and income inequality? Buy fair trade coffee from Whole Foods (a behemoth chain store operation, of course). Worried about the environment? Buy a hybrid and some Rainforest-Free lumber for your enormously inefficient home. There's a reason Dennis fucking Hopper is on TV hawking IRAs and the Rolling Stones are rocking out for Ameriquest Mortgage: because refinancing and setting up a bitchin' Roth IRA are what cool motherfuckers do! Now you can prove you're the same cool motherfucker you were in 1969 by following the 60s icons' lead to your financial planner's office.

What's wrong with pinkwashing? If you're going to buy soup anyway, isn't it better for Campbell's to send a dime to charity? Yes and no. Yes, it's obviously good that charities receive donations. No, it's not healthy to encourage people to believe that they have Done Their Part and Made a Difference by shopping. It's unhealthy to tell people they are expressing their individuality by buying an iMac and a Jetta and choosing the Pottery Barn collection that really communicates who they are as a person. It's unhealthy to reassure your long-dead inner radical that you are not part of The Machine by feeding it.

It's sad – almost as sad as the Your Job is Nonconformist phenomenon (You're a rebel because you work at IBM or Google or for some Ad Agency or in Marketing or in some office that doesn't even make you wear a tie!) – and it's sucking the ability to think, speak, and act about social problems right out of our society. Perhaps that's why so many Americans feel like the current political situation is so far out of hand; when the Iraq War cheerleading began, they couldn't figure out which products to buy to stop it.

12 thoughts on “PINKWASHED”

  • You forgot the biggest movement-becomes-product marketing bonanzas of the last several years: LiveRight and WWJD bracelets.

  • "No, it’s not healthy to encourage people to believe that they have Done Their Part and Made a Difference by shopping."

    In response to this, I ask what avenues people have to actually do their part and make a difference? It seems to me that the implicit message in your post today is that by convincing people that it is acceptable to express themselves via the things they buy, it prevents them from doing other, presumably more healthy thing to "make a difference" and "demonstrate who they are." And I must disagree.

    Realistically, there aren't any methods that people can make use of. It's not that the commodification of expression and identity (etc.) prevents people from making use of other means, it's that there's nothing else you can do. Your purchasing power is your only chance at making a difference and showing who you are. That's the society that we live in.

    In my opinion, of course. But I would be curious to hear what you would rather people do to express themselves, if not this. Vote? Write letters to their congressmen and/or -women? Protest? Blog? These are all things that can make you feel like you've accomplished something, but they don't end up making much of a difference.

  • Matthew – you're not serious right?

    I work for a health care organization that provides comprehensive medical care to more than 1200 people living with a disease that is incredibly expensive to treat. Half of our patients live below the FPL and do not have any health care payor source – no government programs, no private/employer health care program. Without this clinic they would die a senseless, early death.

    You want to make a difference? DO NOT go buy a red, green, purple, brown, or pink anything! Make a monetary donation of whatever you can afford to an organziation that does something you beleive in. Then go volunteer with that organization a couple times a year. Then start bringing your friends, family, nieces, nephews and co-workers with you when you volunteer.

    Then, go vote and follow the same steps above.

    You don't think these things make a difference? Tell that to the single mother who just moved into a house built by Habitat for Humanity or the young black man with HIV who was able to see a doctor and get the drugs he needs becuase of the donated time and energy and money.

    The paralysis that comes from thinking everything we do needs to be some media grabbing, over-the-top exercise is a horrifying aspect of the apathy our society seems to have.

  • Matthew, I think the point is that if you want to do something about cancer, volunteering your time and money are far superior options than wearing a ribbon or buying soup. People do less of the former because they conflate doing the latter with making a contribution.

  • Hey BK, does your organization have a website I can browse? I have decided that I'm going to donate my economic stimulus check to stuff that I believe would piss off the president, and I feel that helping treat the poor is one of those things.

  • What bothers me even more than free advertising is when these organizations are spending more money on advertising their awarness products then they are actually donating. A few months ago The New York Times did an article on the red campaign, it said that the participants in the red product campaign spent something to the tune of 6 or 7 times as much on advertising the red products compared to the amount they donated.

  • Donating time and money directly is absolutely the way to go. What I warn friends about is to check out the overhead for any nonprofit group. Overhead is unavoidable, and it depends on the size of the organization. American Red Cross has something like 40-45%, so unless you have a sizeable amount that you can earmark for one thing, almost half will likely go to overhead admin costs. (not to bash the ARC…)

    If it's a smaller nonprofit, the overhead varies. But of course, the smaller the better – more bang, etc.

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