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Gayle A. Sulik M.A., Ph.D.

Kohl’s Cash for the Cure Pretties Up Breast Cancer

Campaign capitalizes on the breast cancer brand.

From February 18th through March 8th, the Kohl’s Cash ® for the Cure campaign offers a $10 Pink Kohl’s Cash coupon for every $50 you spend . The coupon increases with every $50 purchase. Then at your next purchase at Kohl’s that amount is deducted from the total at checkout (so long as you make the purchase by March 8th). Spend $250 to receive $50 in Pink Kohl’s Cash, again not really cash but a price reduction on a future purchase. Kohl’s then donates $1 to Susan G. Komen® for each valid coupon redeemed. For multiple transactions using the same coupon, Kohl’s makes only a single $1 donation.

The campaign ends tomorrow and Kohl’s already met its goal of donating $1 million to Komen. To reach that goal at least 100 thousand Kohl’s Cash cards were redeemed. At $50 for each $10 card (the lowest of the denominations) consumers spent at least $5 million at Kohl’s, most likely more since the purchases rewarded are in $50 increments. If you spent $90 you would still get the $50 coupon and Kohl’s would still donate just one dollar. And if for whatever reason you do not redeem your coupon by March 8 th I guess you would lose it.

As I’ve written before, the breast cancer brand ,

“Draws from a collection of symbols, images, and meanings within pink ribbon culture to maintain the principal message that breast cancer is a vitally important cause, and that supporting it indicates good will toward women. The brand encourages people to buy and display pink in the name of increased awareness, improvement in women’s lives, faith in medical science, and hope for a future without breast cancer. The brand capitalizes on emotional responses related to fear of the disease, hope for a cure, and the goodness of the cause.”

In return for Komen’s role in the campaign the charity gets $1 million plus free advertising of its own brand. Since Komen came under intense scrutiny in recent years over its involvement in trademark feuds , pinkwashing , questionable marketing tactics and funding allocations , lack of transparency , misuse of scientific information in advertising , and the Planned Parenthood scandal , its reputation has been tarnished and its revenues are down 22 percent. Partnerships like this one capitalize on the breast cancer brand in ways that may end up hurting Komen even more.

How Does the Breast Cancer Brand Work in the Kohl’s Campaign?

The pink ribbon has been parlayed into fundraising opportunities for people who are serious about breast cancer as well as those who simply capitalize on the breast cancer brand. The Kohl’s-Komen campaign uses key elements of the brand — fear, hope, and goodness – to sell pink products and a culture that supports pink consumption. Since I developed the framework for the breast cancer brand after analyzing hundreds of breast cancer advertisements in popular women’s magazines from 1999 to 2007, it is fascinating to see them all at work in a single cause-marketing campaign in 2014.


Fear mongering , or the use of fear to influence the opinions and actions of others towards some specific end, is a key emotional dimension of the breast cancer brand. Warnings, misused probability statistics, and the exaggeration of risk all contribute to fear.


“Warning signs are not the same for all women. If you notice any changes in your breasts, see your doctor.”

Not only should women be afraid, they don’t know exactly what they should be afraid of except their own breasts. The language and lack of context draws upon a culture of fear surrounding breast cancer, in which women tend to overestimate their risk and engage in sometimes-excessive body surveillance.

“1 in 8″

By age 30: 1 in 2,000 women
By age 40: 1 in 233 women
By age 50: 1 in 53 women
By age 60: 1 in 22 women
By age 70: 1 in 13 women
By age 80: 1 in 9 women
In a lifetime: 1 in 8 women.

Breast cancer incidence rates are high and deaths from metastatic disease have remained constant for decades. But this important women’s health issue must be viewed in context. Women are more likely to die from heart disease and cancers of the respiratory and digestive systems than from breast cancer. By the time a woman would die of old age, 1 out of 8 women in the United States who avoided equally serious life-threatening events while they were younger is likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

“All Women Are At Risk of Breast Cancer”

As populations live longer without infectious diseases their chances of developing any number of chronic illnesses—including cancer—increases over a lifetime. Likewise the chances of developing most types of cancers (except leukemia and lymphoma which are most prevalent in those aged 15 to 39) increase with age. Most people die of something besides cancer. This is not to diminish the importance of cancer as a vital public health problem but to point out that oft-used awareness statistics seem to indicate that breast cancer is almost inevitable when it is not. Breast cancer campaigns that fail to explain what risk really means give the impression that almost anything and everything will contribute to the development of breast cancer.


Hope is the cornerstone of idealized survivorship for the breast cancer brand. Survivors who are upbeat, passionate, triumphant, and transcendent help to create a cancer-fighting aesthetic that assigns positive meaning to breast cancer. Bearing witness to it through personal experience, the language and symbolism help to create a kind of reality about breast cancer that is upbeat and easy to sell.

The second box breaks the mold by adding that one of the lessons learned is the value of people over appearances and possessions. That this quotation is embedded within a campaign that centers on cash, style and possessions obscures this message. Breast cancer campaigns frequently use optimistic survivor narratives to build trust and transmit a consumer-oriented version of hope.


The breast cancer brand encourages individuals and corporations to fee good about by buying, displaying, and gifting pink products. Supporting the cause through pink consumption and social networking, campaigns encourage consumers to “spread the love” which really amounts to buying the stuff and talking about it with friends to urge them to do the same.

Femininity and the Color Pink

With the color pink at the center, the breast cancer brand takes advantage of cultural assumptions about traditional femininity such as women’s alleged obsessions with beauty, body, and feminine accoutrements—jewelry, clothing, cosmetics, perfumes, shoes, and accessories. Advertising reinforces the message that sexual appeal, physical perfection, and ideal femininity including the perfect home, job, and family, can be attained with the right purchases. The Kohl’s campaign not only boasts pink elephant jewelry; the company leverages the color pink to sell a range of products unrelated to the campaign :

  • Try a “wink of pink” as spring’s favorite color;
  • Go “pink chic” to debut your spring style with a pretty-in-pink spin;
  • “Paint the town pink” with rosy shades to add the perfect dose of color [in a lipstick-as-medicine kind of way] to any outfit;
  • “Real men” [as opposed to girly men] can “wear pink” to put a modern spin on work-to-weekend wear;
  • Kids can “give pink a twirl” because “their fuchsia looks bright” [even if their futures may not];
  • Feel “home, pink, home” with a pop of pink for every room.

Kohl’s is clear that it wants consumers to spend more time shopping than thinking about breast cancer: “While you’re shopping, be sure to stop by our Pink Elephant page ” [italics added]. Shopping is the priority. A quick awareness visit to campaign page makes it all seem worthwhile.

The color pink — despite being a generally warm, pleasing color of femininity — already carries a connotation that denotes a lack of seriousness, and it is generally regarded as unprofessional . After all, it is the color earmarked for little girls and baby gifts. Add the carnival ride imagery and it is clear that there is nothing serious about this campaign when it comes to providing useful public health information. The information boxes are for advertising purposes only, to lend legitimacy to the campaign.

The second thing consumers will see is of they browse the Pink Elephant page is that they are supposed advertise the Kohl’s-Komen campaign using twitter and the hashtag #talkpink. The page includes a select section of the #talkpink twitter feed streaming with upbeat pink messages.

Prettying Up Breast Cancer For the Pink Ribbon Marketplace

The Kohl’s-Komen Pink Elephant campaign uses the usual strategies of breast cancer branding. But it also co-opts a quite serious campaign initiated in October 2012 by METAvivor Research and Support, Inc. The campaign called MBC Aware had the tagline, “Don’t Ignore Stage IV, The Elephant in the Pink Room.”

The use of the elephant metaphor across the two campaigns striking. METAvivor’s campaign explains that metastatic breast cancer (not breast cancer) is the real elephant in the pink room. There are 150,000 or more people in the United States living with stage 4 breast cancer. Unlike early detection success stories, metastatic disease changes course with periods of relative stability followed by serious setbacks and complications. For some with metastatic cancers the harms of treatment eventually outweigh the benefits . The average life expectancy is two to three years, though many do fall outside of the average range.

Kohl’s version pretties up the elephant campaign to make the “conversation” palatable for consumers. Instead of raising awareness about the breast cancer that kills, the Kohl’s Cash for the Cure campaign absorbs METAvivor’s message about an important and obvious topic that has been too uncomfortable to discuss for years and turns it into a profit-making venture.

In addition to its use of the breast cancer brand and co-optation of another charity’s campaign, the Kohl’s-Komen campaign misinforms the public with informational sound bites and misrepresents breast cancer advocacy. I’ll write more about this in Part 2: “A Classic Case of Un-Awareness.”

Dr. Gayle Sulik is the author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health. More information is available on the book's website.

© 2014 Gayle Sulik, PhD ♦ Pink Ribbon Blues on Psychology Today

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