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.