Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Sea of Pink & The Breast Cancer-Industrial Complex

This week I choose to engage in pink-ribbon slacktivism. I first explored BMW’s controversial “The Ultimate Drive” campaign, which promises to donate a dollar to breast cancer research for every mile that you test-drive a BMW. This campaign became a controversy in 2006 when the media scrutinized BMW for selling a product (in this case a car) that knowingly pumps carcinogens into the environment, while appealing to consumers as a company that cares about breast cancer. In this case, it is hard to ignore that BMW has lobbied hard in the past to allow the use of several known carcinogens in gas and car manufacturing. So—here we have a company that allegedly contributes to the environmental risks of developing cancer, while simultaneously promoting a feel-good campaign that aims to stop cancer in its tracks. This inverted logic makes it hard to untangle the motives behind the breast cancer-corporate care nexus, and reminds me of Beck’s discussion on the production of invisible risks in a risk society and how networks can both reveal and obscure the connections between production, consumption, and social change (in “The Logic of Wealth Distribution and Risk Distribution”).  It also reminds me of Berlant’s notion of “slow death” and how we try to ameliorate a situation without changing the underlying problems, i.e. mitigating the proliferation of carcinogens in the environment by changing the way we use cars.

But I do not mean to critique BMW for participating in a campaign that certainly raises awareness and money for an important cause. On a side note, it astounding to consider how much money campaigns like “The Ultimate Drive” collects each year ($800 million in total), and how nearly impossible it is to figure out where this money actually goes. Nevertheless, what I do mean to critique is how BMW’s advertising makes you feel like the cure is right down the road. That is, it is in the way companies like BMW market breast cancer awareness through the use of marketing collateral decked out with pink ribbons, pink balloons, pink roses, pink everything. Not only does this lead to the hypervisibility of cancer, but also a political and social aesthetic that conveys a very rosy situation. Known as “Pinkwashing”, the use of pink by industries to build good will, sell their product, and cover up their own complicity in the problem ultimately obscures the complexity of the social cause, while capitalizing on hope and obfuscating the connection between cancer and profit. Furthermore, Pinkwashing renders invisible certain forms of suffering, death, grieving and pain in breast cancer’s national, illness narrative in exchange for transferring affect to a feeling about a business.

The pink-ribbon movement shares similarities with the Kony 2012 movement in the way that they both mobilize a civic-minded, but ultimately passive ideal of empathy and collective action. While it is certainly a nice gesture to display a pink-ribbon on your car, it is unclear whether such an act is actually helpful or harmful to the broader social goal. In other words, is it ethical to support a political aesthetic that bathes us in positive energies, that has been appropriated by arguably manipulative corporations, that blurs the line between collective passivity and collective passion, that prefers pink femininity over the tough warrior narrative, and that avoids talking about the frustrating and terrifying nature of cancer and cancer research? What does the pink ribbon represent, if not an impasse that makes impossible a more elegiac politics, or a space for grieving and pain in the way we respond to breast cancer as a national wound? The pink ribbon movement also reminds me of Kony 2012 in the way that it is incredibly difficult to totalize complex, political situations and explain issues like breast cancer to the lay public without oversimplifying the problem. Instead, it seems much easier to build an aesthetic movement that is consumer-friendly, smartly branded, and affectively contagious with the potential to go viral. Lastly, the pink ribbon movement also reminds me of TextMob and how “success” can be thought of not in terms of outcomes, but in terms of the communities the movements create. From the sea of pink has emerged a robust and ubiquitous global support community for breast cancer sufferers. From cancer walk-a-thons like Relay for Life to CSR initiatives like “The Ultimate Drive”, the support is overwhelming. And it is easy to become a community member. For example, October is national breast cancer awareness month, and this year, the “I like it on the…” campaign went viral on Facebook as people posted provocative statuses to raise awareness about breast cancer. But what does this accomplish in terms of outcomes, besides creating a diffused, low-stakes and potentially receding community of slactivists?

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