Brand Purpose Breast Cancer Awareness Month Marketing

As a breast cancer survivor, Pinktober marketing is triggering and trivializing


By Cate Rubenstein, Creative strategist

September 12, 2023 | 8 min read

Creative and comms strategist Cate Rubenstein thinks Pinktober, the Breast Cancer Awareness month, really misses the mark. That’s speaking as a marketer and a survivor; she explains why.

No to Pinktober

Pinktober is a waste of funds and energy.

It needs to stop.


Breast cancer marketing is designed to make people feel good about “giving.”

In reality, money raised from pinkwashing products/goods/services rarely goes to research, patients or survivors but to awareness-raising entities.

We’re all aware of breast cancer by now. Amoebae under rocks on Mars have heard of the damn thing. Devoting four weeks to retreading the same territory lacks originality and substantive meaning.

The breast cancer community is traumatized. A month of intense marketing lobs triggers and reminders aplenty at people who frequently would just like to get back to living. Would you honor veterans by designing inescapable campaigns that glorify bombings? Think about whom you purport to be supporting: human beings. In fairness, there is a fundamental issue in that often, they expect people who have not been through cancer to address it appropriately via content calendar meetings.

Take CPG. An unintended offender – branded fast food, candies, cookies… cancer cells thrive on glucose from sugar. Sugar links to obesity… a cancer risk factor, handily.

Cosmetics often champion “pinking,” but these products can be chemical-laden.

Vacuum cleaners? Irrelevant, but sure, OK. All we’re doing here is commodifying whatever and making disease a consumerist holiday.

Pinktoberwashing misses the mark reliably. In an unscientific poll of… every breast cancer survivor or patient I know, Pinktober is alienating, offensive and trivializing.

Bad marketers, in particular, have a terrible habit of sexualizing the meaning. I’ve been in meetings where the creative direction was ‘Make it fun! Make it sexy! Make it spunky!’ (I could write reams separately on using “spunky” as applied to any female of the species expressing an opinion, but leave that to another time.)

Disease spans a continuum from disfiguring to deadly. Making it “fun” or “sexy” is out of touch with people and experiences you (say you’re) championing. Cancer isn’t fun. Pretending it is fun is demeaning. There is nothing remotely sexy about the disease, regardless of where it hits a body. Is lung cancer sexy? Diabetes? Diagnosis is bad already; we shouldn’t then have to accommodate people perving out on our malady. Objectifying.

Marketing incorporates regressive childish nicknames, “boobies,” “tatas,” “hooters,” etc. This isn’t a disease that happens to children. Let’s use our words when discussing adult things. Diminutizing through language is cute-ifying something that isn’t cute remotely. Pretending won’t make it so, unfortunately. Let’s communicate frankly about our bodies. Perhaps then we can start having useful campaigns, not exhibitionism.

Breast cancer isn’t a beer commercial. Social media initiatives such as ‘go braless for breast cancer’?


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Jiggling selfies aren’t validating or supporting for women who lost their breasts. They’re merely vulgarity of flaunting. Post these for your own reasons. Your body. No shame. But please, for the love of everything, don’t hashtag it #breastcancer. A thirst trap isn’t a statement of solidarity. It’s a bid for attention.

Pinktober breeds resentment in the larger cancer community, lessening support from the very people who generally would be most understanding: fellow patients. There’s a disproportionate emphasis and amount spent on something globally ubiquitous anyway. Why? Who is it helping? The names of organizations you know best, do least. With the exception of one, they have a circular economy, where funds raised through Pinktober just keep their own administrations churning. They’re excellent at PR but look closer, and you will realize the futility of their global viral partnerships that didn’t help anybody. Brands seldom disclose how much they donate- to charities that seldom declare where donations go.

Ask a lot more questions before partnering.

Pinktober even manages to create a schism in the breast cancer community. We know ‘Stage four needs more.’ Yet it’s wholly unrepresented in bouncy, glossy ads sexualizing healthy female bodies. Inclusivity is nonexistent: men get breast cancer, too, albeit more rarely. Where are men at all in breast cancer marketing? What if you’re transitioning gender and also don’t see yourself represented remotely? Marketing is meant to reach a target audience. Who exactly is the target for Pinktober? Not patients.

Call October what it is: pinked-up Black Friday.

It is exploitative.

Cause marketing comes down to empathy.

How’s Pinktober making patients feel?

Pinking isn’t efficacy. From handguns to dog food to lube, we’re commodifying lethal disease. People die from this. But 'slut with breast cancer' porn is a thing. They say: “Breast cancer can be sexy! Save the boobs; we’re contributing 1% for every 30 videos viewed from ‘big tits’ and ‘small tits’ categories.” (I so wish I were kidding.)

If marketing made an honest go of Pinktober, the real campaign might begin 'Ain’t this some shit. Lordy.’

I’ve plenty of ideas to make this month more meaningful, actionable and supportive. But that is a whole separate essay. First, let’s stop upsetting your target demographic with your Pinktober activity.

Cate is a senior vice-president of global marketing. Luckily for you, she’s available to hire.

Brand Purpose Breast Cancer Awareness Month Marketing

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