Awareness awareness: Checking in on the NFL’s October pinkwash

November is here, which means that October has come to an end, and with it, the ocular invasion that is the NFL’s breast cancer awareness campaign. Last year, I asked whether, for the NFL, pink really meant green:

Now in its thirdfourth year, the NFL’s very public approach to breast cancer awareness has resulted in approximately $3 million in contributions to the cause, something that is unquestionably good. The campaign is not without its critics, though, who are asking a variety of questions. Some wonder whether, given the wide prevalence of public awareness of breast cancer, the NFL’s stage might more effectively be used to increase awareness within the male population– the league’s primary audience– of the risks associated with colon cancer, a disease with less attention but high incidence nationwide. Others, tired of the harsh pink visuals in the country’s most television-centric sport, constructively wonder whether the campaign might raise more money by letting people pay to somehow watch the game without seeing the neon-pink gloves, cleats, and other things, all of which seem to confound the color spectrum on even the highest definition televisions.

None of these critiques question the fundamentals of the NFL’s breast cancer awareness campaign, which is what makes the latest inquiry stand out. In an article posted last week, Business Insider asked, “Why is the NFL profiting off of breast cancer?” That doesn’t sound too good. The article explains that, while on-field pink equipment items are sold at auction, with the proceeds going to the American Cancer Society (an organization dedicated to “research, education, advocacy, and service”), “it is less clear how much of the sales of pink gear in the NFL Shop go towards research.”

Boiling down the numbers, the conclusion of that Business Insider article was that, “for every $100 in sales of pink gear, only $3.54 is going towards research while the NFL is keeping approximately $45 (based on 100% mark-up).” As I added then: on Business Insider’s math, even this probably is a generous estimate, since the American Cancer Society does more than just fund research, as evidenced by their mission statement. The NFL’s response only complicated the matter, such that even ProFootballTalk– commonly considered to be a league mouthpiece– issued a critical rejoinder. You can read last year’s post in full here.


One year later, scrutiny on the NFL and A Crucial Catch has increased and intensified. The central elements of last year’s critique centered around effectiveness (e.g., the sufficiency and necessity of “awareness” (as opposed to research), the amount of money actually going to a charitable cause, and the prioritization of breast cancer awareness over other causes). This year, there is more pronounced interest in the ways in which the NFL benefits from its monthlong campaign. Yes, there’s that pesky question about whether the league is profiting from the sale of pink football merchandise, but the issue is broader than that:

A Crucial Catch is not as altruistic as it is presented to be. Research suggests that the NFL and its corporate partners are more concerned with enhancing their public images — especially among women — and ultimately revenues, than they are with addressing breast cancer, and they seek to manipulate NFL fandom in the name of public health.

A Crucial Catch is an example of cause-related marketing — using marketing strategies in a partnership to benefit both a social cause and an enterprise. The cause receives attention and funds. The enterprises’ public image is enhanced, which ultimately leads to more profits. Cause marketing can be especially potent when applied to sports, because consumers have emotional attachments to teams and athletes that can easily be mined to raise awareness and funds.

The concept of “cause-related marketing” alone doesn’t strike me as too insidious. As the Sports On Earth article explains, however, real problems can arise when “murky” financial calculations combine with cause-related marketing:

While all proceeds from auctioned game-worn items go to breast cancer causes, the league declines to say what portion of the apparel sales do. Inquiring minds can estimate, however. Ticketmaster limited its 2012 A Crucial Catch contribution to 10 cents for every ticket sold last October (up to $40,000 total), and The New York Times reported that Old Navy donated only five percent of revenues to a foundation via a similar 2011 campaign featuring the Dallas Cowboys.

The idea that the NFL is seeking to develop a new audience for its product helps explain why the league would so aggressively promote a breast cancer “awareness” campaign. Not only is comparatively (and cryptically) underfunding an awareness campaign somewhat impotent, it actually could be causing harm:

Many researchers debate [the American Cancer Society’s (ACS)] preferred strategies to address breast cancer, for one. They argue that annual screenings are not recommended for women in their 40s because they can lead to false positives and unnecessary biopsies. Other researchers argue that ACS is too focused on treating breast cancer, instead of preventing it. A Crucial Catch has diverted attention away from prevention strategies — including research into companies that support ACS breast cancer causes, companies who have been accused of selling products that may cause breast cancer.

That sounds pretty frightening. The article doesn’t elaborate, unfortunately, possibly because it’s a quickly produced summary of the author’s master’s thesis. It does set the table for this latest look at A Crucial Catch, though, and that’s helpful.

Meanwhile, Business Insider has updated its financial research from last year and now reports that 8.01% of money customers spend on pink NFL gear actually goes toward breast cancer research. That actually appears to be a greater percentage than reported last year, although Business Insider’s 2013 article is less detailed than the one it ran in 2012, so it is difficult to know for sure.

One of the greatest revelations of the true nature of the NFL’s breast cancer awareness campaign came from the league itself, which fined Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall for wearing green shoes to call attention to mental health awareness week, an action that speaks for itself.

Awareness awareness may be doing some good, though. In Detroit, former Lion Herman Moore is leading a campaign with the team to raise money that will go directly to support local cancer research efforts. Lions president Tom Lewand gets what’s going on here:

With their “Game on Cancer” campaign, the Lions and the cancer institute, part of the Henry Ford Health System, hope to raise $15 million over the next three years to help fund cancer research in metro Detroit.

The Lions will donate part of proceeds from the 50-50 raffle they host every home game to cancer research — the other part goes to the team’s Living in the City charity — and the team is selling virtual pieces of Ford Field to raise funds for the program.

“To us, it’s much more impactful than pink shoes and wristbands,” Lions president Tom Lewand said. “Not that those aren’t important because those raise awareness in a way that is very important.… But this is the rest of the story.

“Once you’ve raised awareness, what are you doing to leverage that into a much more meaningful relationship? And without this partnership, I don’t think Henry Ford Health Systems has the profile to go out and raise the $15 million.”

Even if the NFL’s A Crucial Catch pinkwashing is “a total scam” (Hyperbole Alert!), it is nice to see the league’s member teams and players striking out on their own in order to make real differences in others’ lives.


A November update: In conjunction with Veterans’ Day, the NFL will be donating $300– $100 each to the USO, Wounded Warrior Project, and Pat Tillman Foundation– per point scored during selected games this month. The league’s “Salute to Service” campaign resembles A Crucial Catch in some mechanical respects. Here’s hoping this effort, which is in its second year, is less subject to the commensurate criticisms.


For the NFL, does pink really mean green?
Corporate Responsibility and the Man in the Mirror – QuestionsPresented


2 thoughts on “Awareness awareness: Checking in on the NFL’s October pinkwash

  1. Nice post. A few thoughts:

    If you watch the games in stunningly low-def then you can hardly tell where the football is much less the glaringly pink colors strewn about the field. Just something to think about.

    There are 4 full weekends in November (4 Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays). I count 58 games this month. This last weekend there were 14 this past weekend for a total of 625 points leading to an average of about 44.5 total points per game. Assuming this week wasn’t exceptional one way or another (the max and min were 49 and 8 which doesn’t seem too exceptional) this leads to a total of 2589 points in the month of November. At $300 per point this turns into about $777,000. The article claims that last year they “donated nearly $800,000” so the math seems to line up. On to the conclusions, while in the vicinity of $1m certainly seems like a considerable contribution, I am always skeptical of fundraising through obfuscation. Before I started these calculations I hadn’t clicked on the link and so had no idea how much money to expect coming out of it. A few thousands? A few millions? An estimation is easy of course, but only if you write down a few numbers first (I suspect most fans won’t do this, and certainly not while they’re watching the game). As is consistent with the theme of this blog post, publicity is no doubt a big part of the campaign (they’re auctioning off camo gear as well). Why not include the money in this publicity? Some kind of ticker showing how much money they’ve raised so far? Whenever you get a score alert on the bottom line and someone’s score rolls over from 3->9->10 why not subsequently show the “amount the NFL has donated to Veterans causes” roll over from $12,300->$14,100->$14,400? Then people can get a feel for exactly how much the NFL is actually giving in these sorts of campaigns as the month progresses.

    • I like your idea of broadcasting a running tally of the points-dollars over the course of the month. I think it would be an effective and fun way to draw attention to the causes. I’ve noticed the on-screen scoreboards during many NFL broadcasts have space reserved for an icon, so the tally could go in that space. It might be difficult to execute without confusion, though, because not every game will count toward the total. Cynically, it also may offer a little too much transparency, as the fine print could include things like overall donation caps the league doesn’t necessarily want publicized.

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