Study Says Pink Could Hurt Breast Cancer Awareness, Donations

As all NFL fans surely know by now, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For years, the NFL, whose commissioner Roger Goodell saw his mother die from breast cancer, is doing its part by encouraging early screenings and having its players wear pink on every from its cleats to towels to chin straps.

Torrey Smith of the Baltimore Ravens tries to pull in a pass against safety Eric Smith of the New York Jets on October 2, 2011. 
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Torrey Smith of the Baltimore Ravens tries to pull in a pass against safety Eric Smith of the New York Jets on October 2, 2011. 

But Professor Stefan Puntoni, an associate professor of marketing at the Rotterdam School of Management, has a study that shows that pink is not only not ideal, it could be detrimental to breast cancer fundraising.

Puntoni's study, which was recently mentioned in Harvard Business Review, says that when women saw pink in a breast cancer advertisement, they were less likely to think that they were vulnerable to the disease as compared to women who were shown colorless ads with the same advertising copy.

Puntoni hypothesizes that since pink is targeted directly to them, women act defensive. When they feel less threatened and are not spoken to directly through copy or through pink color cues, Puntoni found that they were more likely to donate to a women-related charity (in his study, ovarian cancer).

"I do not advocate the wholesale abandonment of pink and of the pink ribbon," Puntoni told me. "These symbols have been instrumental in the remarkable success of breast cancer campaigns in recent years by providing immediately recognizable visual symbols for the cause. I would therefore understand if they felt that our research is controversial and perhaps even

detrimental to the cause. In fact, we started out with the opposite hypothesis (that gender cues would help) but the data kept on telling us we were wrong."

It is believed that the pink association with breast cancer came about thanks to the Susan G. Komen For The Cure in 1991. At the time, the charitable organization handed out pink ribbons to participants in a New York City race.

Leslie Aun, spokesperson for Susan G. Komen For The Cure, says that their research doesn't reflect Puntoni's finding.

Healthy Business - A CNBC Special Report
Healthy Business - A CNBC Special Report

"Our experience and our own research, which is only a few weeks old now, says that people are very positive about the color pink and the pink ribbon," Aun said. "They are very comfortable with it and they're spending plenty of dollars on pink products."

While slogans like "Think Pink" have been thought of as success, Puntoni is quick to point out that "it's not about what women willingly want or don't want to think about. The effects documented in our paper are automatic and non-conscious. People are not aware of them. In fact, a good way to kill the effect is to make women explicitly think about their fear of breast cancer."

Although Aun's team hasn't studied pink specifically, she says she finds it hard to believe that messaging and pink color cues actually discourage women from participating or donating. "In a tough economic time, we've seen a five percent donation increase associated with our

150 races around the country from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2011," she said.

Puntoni, who has not spoken to the Susan G. Komen executives, told CNBC that he thinks it's time to at least re-evaluate the way women are spoken to in breast cancer advertising as well as the use of the color pink.

"If more research shows that a change of color is desirable then we should move away from pink," Puntoni said. "If pink alone is not causing denial, then we can keep pink but just be aware of how it should be used to avoid the campaign backfiring."

Pink is said to have a tranquilizing effect on people. It also is said to inspire action and confidence.

Questions? Comments?