You'll be seeing plenty of pink this month during national Breast Cancer Awareness Month — but many businesses and nonprofits are...

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You’ll be seeing plenty of pink this month during national Breast Cancer Awareness Month — but many businesses and nonprofits are seeing green.


In support of the cause, you can cut vegetables with pink kitchen knives ($344 by Mundial) while sipping champagne from a pink flute ($27 a pair, by Riedel Crystal).


You can suck on a Tic Tac (79 cents) or feed your dog a treat (AvoDerm Dog Kookies, $3.50) from pink-ribboned containers.


You can dress, vacuum, eat, even sleep for the cure (on a pink Serta mattress).


But what you can’t do, in many cases, is know with certainty just how much your pink purchases are helping in the fight against breast cancer.


More and more companies are slapping pink ribbons on their products, piggybacking on a good cause to boost their profile and their sales through lucrative partnerships with breast-cancer charities.

Some companies state exactly how much of their pink sales go to charity. Clinique, for example, is selling a lipstick called “In the Pink” for $14, with a generous $10 from each sale going to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Others offer only vague assurances that the purchase generates a donation toward breast-cancer research.

Donna Karan Cosmetics is selling a Cashmere Mist Eau de Parfum Rollerball for $40, with proceeds also benefiting the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. But a tag on the perfume doesn’t specify how much goes to charity. The foundation’s Web site says Donna Karan will make a $17,500 donation from sales of the perfume, but it doesn’t state how much of the purchase price goes to the foundation or whether a sales target must be met.

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Nonprofits say the sales of pink products add up, raising millions for breast-cancer research as well as awareness about the disease.


Kirkland breast-cancer survivor Jayne Collins said she makes a point of buying pink and sees her pink keychain, clothes, jewelry and other purchases as a conversation starter, a way to educate friends and acquaintances about breast cancer.

Yet the flood of pink products in stores also poses a dilemma for her. “Stick a pink ribbon on something and people will buy it. But how much really goes to charity?” asked Collins, 45. “I try to be as savvy as I can” by reading labels and Web sites, “and I won’t buy unless I know there’s a significant contribution from my purchase going to the cause.”


Charity watchdogs say many companies make it nearly impossible for consumers to do that homework. They charge some businesses are co-opting the cause for profit.


“We think these campaigns should be as good for the cause as they are for the cure, and we don’t have a lot of evidence that’s true,” said Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group in San Francisco.


“You can cook for the cure, shop for the cure — why don’t we have the cure yet?”


“Cause marketing”


Think before you pink


Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group, sponsors a “Think Before You Pink” campaign (www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org) that encourages consumers to ask questions before buying pink:

1. How much money from each product sold goes toward breast cancer?


Yoplait donates 10 cents for every pink yogurt lid mailed back to the company. It would take four lids just to cover the price of the stamp.


2. What percentage of the purchase price does this represent?


Many companies aren’t clear about the amount they donate from each purchase.


A shelf full of pink products found at a Bellevue Hallmark store recently illustrates the problem. Shoppers wanting to support breast-cancer research could buy a pink SpongeBob SquarePants Beanie Baby, gift-packaged containers of cocoa and strawberry lemonade, a purse, an angel ornament or a T-shirt.


Only the T-shirt vendor specified that half of the $10 purchase price supports the Susan G. Komen Foundation. The rest said only that a portion of the proceeds goes to breast-cancer research. In most cases, they didn’t even specify which organization receives the donation.


3. What is the maximum amount to be donated?


Some companies cap the amount they will donate. If you buy the product after the cap is reached, none of your purchase price benefits the cause.


4. How much money was spent marketing the product?


In a 2005 PR Week article, 3M touted its breast-cancer awareness effort involving a 70-foot-tall ribbon made of Post-it notes in Times Square. The article reported that sales exceeded 3M’s expectations by 80 percent. 3M spent $500,000 on the marketing campaign, giving a little over half of that amount ($300,000) to the cause.


5. Which breast-cancer organization gets the donation, and what types of programs does it support?


Cutting-edge research? Services for the poor? Vague breast-health initiatives that don’t help find a cure?


6. What is the company doing to assure its products are not contributing to breast cancer?


Breast Cancer Action takes particular issue with cosmetics companies using chemicals that may be linked to cancer; car companies giving money each time you test-drive a pollutant-emitting car; and golf tournaments benefiting the cause held on golf courses sprayed with pesticides.


Companies are increasingly eager to join forces with breast-cancer charities, knowing such “cause marketing” burnishes their reputation and resonates strongly with women shoppers.

Nearly nine out of 10 shoppers would likely switch from one brand to another if one was associated with a good cause, according to a 2004 study by Cone, a brand strategy and communications firm.


“It provides an emotional connection with consumers and allows them to do something to make a difference,” said Julia Hobbs Kivistik, Cone’s executive vice president of cause branding. “Consumers reward companies that give them … a chance to be part of something bigger than themselves.”


Loyal customers translate into bigger sales. For the first time this year, Campbell Soup put pink labels on its top two condensed soups in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month — and doubled the sales of those soups to its biggest grocery customer, Kroger, according to Advertising Age.


These partnerships are increasingly important for nonprofits, too — and no one does cause marketing better than breast-cancer charities.


The alliances “provide important funds, but they also get the educational message out that we just couldn’t do alone,” said Carrie Hodges, cause-marketing manager for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Her department manages corporate partnerships and handles requests for new alliances that stream in daily during the fall.


Komen raises about $30 million a year through 130 corporate partnerships. “I don’t see how anybody could look at $30 million and say it isn’t enough,” Hodges said.


Pink products often carry tags or marketing materials that help raise awareness about breast cancer and about the nonprofits themselves, publicizing their mission and their Web sites.


Consumers “don’t even have to buy these products — I still won,” said Robbie Finke, marketing director for the New York-based Breast Cancer Research Foundation.


About one-third of the $27 million the foundation raised last fiscal year came from marketing initiatives and partnerships with 70 to 80 companies, she said.


“I look at these [partnerships] as our little emissaries, our sales force,” Finke said. “We don’t have an ad budget or a PR budget. … This is how we spread the word about who we are and what we do.”


“Just great advertising”


But critics say most companies get much more out of the partnerships than they give in return.


Smart giving advice


Charity watchdogs offer this advice for consumers swimming in pink this month: Don’t mix your purchases and your philanthropy.

“Buy the best product at the best price and use the savings to make a donation to the charity of your choice,” said Daniel Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy. “You have the assurance that the charity is getting all your money, and you get the tax deduction.”


If you want to buy pink because it makes you feel good, go ahead. “But you should give to make a difference,” said Trent Stamp of Charity Navigator, “and you’re not making a difference by buying a yogurt.”


Both charity-watchdog groups rate charities based on multiple factors, including how much of each charity’s donations go toward its charitable purpose.


More than 700 nonprofits in the United States were founded to combat breast cancer, according to Charity Navigator.


Of the nation’s 20 largest breast-cancer charities, about half are operating efficiently, the group says. You can find the ratings online: www.charitynavigator.org, a free service; or www.charitywatch.org, a subscription service.

“It’s rarely more than a penny on the dollar,” said Trent Stamp, executive director of the charity watchdog group Charity Navigator. “It’s just great advertising.”


Breast Cancer Action ran an ad in 2002 in The New York Times called “Who’s Really Cleaning Up Here?” It pointed out Eureka was donating less than 1 percent of the sale price of its “Clean for the Cure” vacuum cleaner, while American Express was donating a penny per transaction — of any amount — in its “Charge for the Cure” campaign.


The group also launched a “Think Before You Pink” campaign calling on consumers to ask tougher questions of the charities and their corporate partners before opening their wallets.


Today, many charities demand more transparency from corporations seeking partnerships with them. Both Komen and the Breast Cancer Research foundations now require businesses to disclose how much money will go to the charity and the terms of the promotion.


But many times, it’s still impossible for shoppers to know how much good they’re doing by buying pink.


Some companies use phrases such as “a portion of proceeds goes to charity” or “net profits to charity.” But those phrases don’t have any specific meaning, said Daniel Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy, another charity watchdog group.


The promotion may only last a limited time, or there may be a sales target that must be reached before the donation is triggered, he said.


Luxury jeweler Cartier got some heat last year for a pink-ribbon campaign it launched to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. It sold a pink watch for $3,900 and pledged to donate $30,000 to the foundation. If you were the eighth person to buy the watch, none of your purchase price went toward the cause.


This year, Cartier is selling the watch for $3,800, and the company promises to donate $200 per watch sold, with a minimum donation of $16,000.

Companies can use accounting techniques to assign all kinds of costs to a pink-ribbon campaign, Borochoff said. In some cases, there’s little or none of the profits left to donate.


“There’s no accountability. You would really have to trust the company because you’re not privy to how they calculate this,” Borochoff said.


Other companies, such as Yoplait and Quilted Northern Ultra, require consumers to do a lot of legwork to activate a donation. Each clean yogurt lid mailed in generates a 10-cent donation up to $1.5 million. Each proof-of-purchase seal from the toilet-paper package means a 50-cent donation, up to $500,000.


Komen points out that Yoplait has donated nearly $4 million through its “Save Lids to Save Lives” campaign during the past six years. Quilted Northern Ultra’s parent, Georgia-Pacific, has given more than $1.5 million.


Action, not consumption


Is there such a thing as too much pink?


Some worry about pink-ribbon fatigue among consumers or a backlash against charities perceived as overcommercialized.

“People may ask: ‘Why do they need my $50 donation? Let the companies support you,’ ” Borochoff said.


Finke, marketing director for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, said she is selective in choosing which corporate partners the foundation takes on.


“It’s brand control. If you put your name on everything, then you don’t have a brand anymore,” she said.


Yet she hates to turn down potential partners. “How do you tell someone, ‘You can’t give me money’? Can we afford to lose that money?”


But Brenner of Breast Cancer Action thinks the focus on shopping for the cure is misguided.


Her group emphasizes prevention and asks whether companies are contributing to the disease by producing potentially carcinogenic products or through their environmental practices.


Instead of wearing a pink ribbon, Brenner favors a button reading “Cancer Sucks,” created by a board member who died of breast cancer in her early 40s.


“There is nothing soft and pretty about this disease,” Brenner said.


If there was evidence pink-ribbon marketing was working, Brenner said she would be more supportive.


Today, a woman is told every 1.9 minutes that she has breast cancer, Brenner said. A decade ago, it was every 3 minutes.


“We need people to engage in meaningful activity to solve the problem,” she said.


“If you think you’re going to solve the problem by buying Yoplait, you’ve got another thing coming.”


Jolayne Houtz: 206-464-3122 or jhoutz@seattletimes.com