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CommunityHealthOctober is also a time for pinkwashing 

Every October the UAE, like many countries in the world, turns pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM). From a blush pink Burj Khalifa to rose-tinted burger buns, approaches to BCAM have become increasingly creative. But just how authentic are the intentions of those companies running breast cancer awareness campaigns?  For more than 30 years, BCAM has been dedicated to turning the spotlight on breast cancer and there has been much to celebrate in that...
Mark Lomas Mark LomasOctober 22, 202013 min
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Every October the UAE, like many countries in the world, turns pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM). From a blush pink Burj Khalifa to rose-tinted burger buns, approaches to BCAM have become increasingly creative. But just how authentic are the intentions of those companies running breast cancer awareness campaigns? 

For more than 30 years, BCAM has been dedicated to turning the spotlight on breast cancer and there has been much to celebrate in that time: death rates from breast cancer have been in decline for years, thanks to better screening and early detection, improved treatment and, of course, increased awareness. 

But while most companies have genuine intentions regarding their involvement in BCAM, many still use the month as a vehicle for improving profits and enhancing their image. Some organisations whose products can actually cause breast cancer even choose to run campaigns in BCAM in what has been labelled “pinkwashing.” And it is surprisingly common.

In their 2011 article for the journal Environmental Justice, titled Pastel Justice: The Corporate Use of Pinkwashing for Profit, Amy Lubitow and Mia Davis explore just how widespread the practice is, noting how corporations “often have the most to gain in this supposedly symbiotic relationship” with BCAM in terms of building brand respect, loyalty and, ultimately, profits. 

Dubai resident Maria Morales is particularly tuned in to BCAM in the UAE as she is both a breast cancer survivor and a former advertising professional. Having curated BCAM campaigns for high-profile global brands in industries as diverse as children’s toys and dairy, she has experienced the month from both sides of the corporate curtain.  

Maria Morales
Image courtesy Maria Morales

“This month is in the content calendar of most companies and has been now for some time,” Morales tells livehealthy.ae. “It is part of the commercial economy in the UAE and all over the world. Companies know they have to be a part of it; they know they must create content and campaigns for it in the same way as they do for Christmas or major holidays. 

“When you work with a brand, you really believe you are doing great but when I look back I know I was completely wrong. Now I can obviously see that some of the industries I worked in aren’t really helpful for people with breast cancer or for people’s general health. Even so, I think the majority of companies still have good intentions. They try to do their best.”

Five years after her breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent double mastectomy, Morales now works in the wellness sector, having experienced the benefits of embracing a healthy lifestyle during her recovery. She conducts talks and workshops and BCAM is a busy time for her. Ultimately, Morales feels that it is up to individuals to identify which companies have honest intentions each October. 

“Breast cancer awareness is about encouraging people to take more accountability for their health and I think we are also accountable for deciding which brands deserve support,” she says. 

“I haven’t participated in events with sweets or sugar, because ultimately they are not good for your health when what you want most as a survivor, or even as someone receiving treatment, is to be healthy. How is a pink cupcake helping someone’s health?”

While being conscious consumers is important during BCAM, there is obviously a need for companies to better understand their responsibilities in relation to breast cancer awareness. Making meaningful donations and empowering women to get tested is more important than offering pink products or posting inspirational quotes on social media. 

Some companies still focus on the latter rather than the former, says Farah Al Alami, chief communications officer at UEMedical and member of the Middle East PR Association (MEPRA) Strategy Board. 

“As PR professionals, we need to make sure it comes under our corporate social responsibility strategy, and is not considered advertising or promotional but rather purely educational,” Al Alami explains. “And if sales are being raised in restaurants or retail, the sole purpose should be to donate a percentage to research institutes or legitimate associations related to breast cancer. 

Farah Al Hamsi
Image courtesy Farah Al Alami

“I do believe organizations and individuals take breast cancer awareness seriously. In the healthcare sector, for example, all activities we do for the community, whether educational or screenings, are endorsed by government health authorities here and in line with their messaging and efforts.”

At UEMedical, Al Alami has been delighted with the response to the hospital group’s BCAM campaign in 2020. 

 “This year, we have over 35 talks presented virtually by our physicians, and we also invited all women of 40 years and above during the month of October for a complimentary breast screening at Danat Al Emarat Hospital for Women and Children in Abu Dhabi. Our slogan is ‘Breast screening doesn’t stop during the pandemic’ and we want to make sure that women do not ignore their regular screening during these challenging times. 

“It is important we also engage employees and raise awareness among them. We see many corporate organisations approaching us for this purpose to educate their staff and get them engaged in talks or activities marking the month of breast cancer awareness. Happily, this year, despite the pandemic and the precautionary measures we all have take, we have seen more people attend these educational talks – virtually – than ever before.”

Organizations like MEPRA play a vital role in encouraging ethical integrity among their clients and for Al Alami, there are some simple questions that companies can ask themselves to avoid pinkwashing.

“When thinking about breast cancer awareness campaigns, they should be asking, how will their activities benefit the community and how will they show support to breast cancer survivors? Will they contribute financially and in what way – to research, education or treatment? How can their activities encourage women to go for their breast screenings and how will their activities raise awareness about self-examining their breasts every month?

“If this happens, such activities – in addition to the overall efforts throughout the city and by different sectors – truly will have an impact and raise awareness. 

“I think it is working, as we have seen more and more women attending and willing to learn more about early detection and the disease. Everyone can play a role in raising awareness about breast cancer and supporting breast cancer survivors.

Mark Lomas

Mark Lomas

Mark is a Dubai-based writer who has couch-surfed through Ukraine, broken bread with football fans in Basra, and appeared on a boxing reality TV show in the UAE – all in pursuit of a good story. Or at least an average anecdote.

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