(Pink Ribbon) Rubber Duckie?

“…You’re the one…You make bathtime lots of fun…Rubber Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you…woo woo woo de woo…”

The children’s song, Rubber Duckie, first appeared on Sesame Street in 1970 and is still a favorite among kids and parents alike. If the title doesn’t sound familiar, click here to listen to Roger Emerson’s plucky arrangement. It’s almost guaranteed to lighten your mood and ring in your ears for the rest of the day. I smile when I recall the classic yellow duck for which the song is named—big black eyes, bright orange beak, and blithe expression. Not surprisingly, the beloved duckie now comes in different colors, sizes, expressions, and accessories from cool sunglasses to a bow tie or even a pink ribbon.

Pink Ribbon Rubber Duckie is available in two shades of pink and has a breast cancer ribbon on its breast. The vinyl ducks are part of Oriental Trading Company’s trademarked Sharing Smiles for the Cure campaign, and they cost only $5.99 per dozen. From June 2010 to June 2011, the company has pledged to donate $3.00 from each of the sales to Susan G. Komen for the Cure®. With a guaranteed minimum donation of $100,000 the campaign motto is, “Buy Pink Ducks & We’ll Give 3 Bucks!”

According to a quote in Stock Analyst from Oriental Trading’s CEO, Sam Taylor, the company has been committed to breast cancer awareness and research since 2006, when it first included “pink awareness products” in its catalogs. According to Mr. Taylor the pink products show consumers that the company “care[s] about them, their family members, and their friends who have been touched by this disease.” The article also reminds readers that with orientaltrading.com’s over 30,000 products, gift cards, and how-to videos, “Planning an awareness event or event of any kind can be done quickly, easily and affordably.” The company’s orientation emphasizes that people want to make a difference and support important things, but they need to be activated in ways that meet the demands of busy, complicated, and increasingly budget-driven lives. For Oriental Trading, cheap pink products fit the bill.

In addition to selling pink stuff to raise more money for the wealthiest non-profit breast cancer organization in the world, the Sharing Smiles for the Cure campaign disseminates messages about the cause, the disease, and how people should offer support. The ‘How to Help’ page of the campaign website reads:

“In the battle against breast cancer the most powerful weapon is hope. Share your strength, love & support through smiles to help make our world cancer free.”

In just one sentence, the company uses war metaphor to promote an idealized vision of a world without cancer and identifies pink consumption as the means to achieve the vision.

The use of figurative language and imagery to associate war concepts with domestic issues is not uncommon in the United States. The war on drugs, war on crime, war on poverty, war on terror…all of these associations galvanize interest, urgency, and resources toward the issue at hand. For breast cancer, the battle, the fight, and the arsenal of biomedical and psychosocial weaponry saturate both the cultural representations of breast cancer and the public discussion of the disease to powerful effect.

In The Breast Cancer Wars, Dr. Barron Lerner shows how the concept of war in breast cancer’s early social history after WWII strongly shaped public opinion, political influence, medical practices, and the personal experience of the disease. Over time, fighting words and warrior marks came to symbolize the pressing, catastrophic, and potentially lethal aspects of cancer and the need for strategic action. The resultant logic was that if women were to feel empowered to fight, they needed a well-funded infrastructure that included weapons, strategies, commanding officers, and heroic role models. The American Cancer Society and its precursors would lead the domestic front, and the federal government would advance the general war effort using “all of the biomedical resources of the National Institutes of Health.” The women’s health movement of the 1970s, and the burgeoning breast cancer movement of the mid-1980s to early 1990s, would then influence the direction of support, education, and resources for diagnosed women.

By the mid-1990s, however, the war on breast cancer was taking a toll. Tens of thousands of women were still dying every year, advancements in medical treatment were slow-going and had too many casualties, and the medical scientific community conceded that “cure” was a misnomer for most breast cancers, which had high rates of recurrence. Messages of early detection and the treatment “successes” of stage zero cancers (those that are not life threatening in the first place), continued to foster hope in the medical system. But with limited success on the biomedical front, the emphasis turned away from cure (and prevention) and instead toward “living with” breast cancer and “hope” for the future. The pink ribbon culture that took control by the mid-1990s united the war with a consumer-based model that would embrace pink products, upbeat visions, and stories of triumphant survivorship embodied in the she-ro.

Oriental Trading’s Sharing Smiles for the Cure campaign fits perfectly within this culture, stating emphatically though optimistically that, “In the battle against breast cancer the most powerful weapon is hope.” Pink ribbon culture keeps the hope alive using war metaphor, and by keeping the hopeful vision of a future without breast cancer in the forefront of the public imagination. When Oriental Trading Company then tells consumers to, “Share your strength, love & support through smiles to help make our world cancer free…” the company equates the Sharing Smiles for the Cure campaign with two types of actions: 1) those that provide social support, and 2) those that are necessary to eradicate breast cancer.

Without recognition that social support of the diagnosed entails more than pink vinyl, that cure is no longer a viable goal in the medical arena, and that the pink products themselves draw attention away from real truths about breast cancer, the giant leap that pink ribbon rubber duckies are vital to a cancer free world is a leap of faith indeed. To me, the pink ribbon duckie is a sign that the war on breast cancer in pink culture has lost its way, catchy tune or not.

“…Pink Ribbon Duckie, You’re the one…You make breast cancer lots of fun…Pink Ribbon Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you…woo woo woo de woo…”


Be Sociable, Share!

1 comment to Rubber Duckie…

  • Gail, Registered Nurse

    I loved the yellow duckie, and the pink duckie would really turn me off if I had cancer. I’m really disappointed in it. These are very Interesting concepts to think and ponder… Your book sounds quite interesting!

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest cutt.ly/jei8WJr

“Pink Ribbon Blues”

Paperback includes a new Introduction on fundraising controversies and a color insert with images of, and reactions to, the pinking of breast cancer (2012).

Praise » 

Flyer »

Press Release »

Hardback Cover »

Paperback Cover »

Request Review Copies »

Order the Paperback »


"Seeing clearly through the pink haze" Toronto Sun

*Sad face*: Being happy does not help you live longer" New Scientist

How should we address breast cancer when norms continually change? The Guardian

Your Fun 'No Bra Day' Photos Are Overshadowing Terminal Breast Cancer Patients Broadly

Backlash against “pinkwashing” of breast cancer awareness campaigns BMJ

Breast Cancer to Rise 50 Percent by 2030? Hey, Not So Fast! Health News Review

Breast Cancer: The Flaws in the Cause iafrica.com

How to Make the Biggest Impact With Your Breast Cancer Donations Money

The Very Pink, Very Controversial Business of Breast Cancer Awareness Racked

NFL, Pink Ribbons Not Enough to Win over Women CNN

3 Questions We Need to Answer for Breast Cancer Awareness Month Chronicle of Philanthropy

The problem with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Women's Health Magazine

Pink Ribbon Envy: Living with an Uncool Cancer The Nib

A Year After Bombings, Some Say 'Boston Strong' Has Gone Overboard NPR, All Things Considered

Canadian Mammogram Study KCRW, NPR Affiliate

Time to Debunk the Mammography Myth CNN

Breast Cancer: Awareness, Activism & Pinkwashing NPR Charlotte

Buying Pink Al Jazeera's The Stream Watch »

The Pink Backlash Orlando Sentinel

Why Jolie's Test Costs So Much CNN

Preventative Mastectomies: Disease and Deception BlogTalkRadio

Angelina Jolie and the 'Breast Cancer Gene' KCRW

Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer The New York Times Magazine.

The Story Behind the Pink Ribbon Campaign Sisters Talk Radio

WISH Interview Women's International Summit for Health

Making Cancer About The Patient, Not The Body Part CBS Pittsburgh

Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients USA Today

The perils of pink The Daily

Komen pink campaign creates breast-cancer blues for some Dallas Morning News

A yellow flag for the NFL's pink New York Daily

Gayle Sulik named #7 in SharecareNow’s Top 10 Online Influencers in Breast Cancer

Breast cancer cancer causes so easily derailed Philly Inquirer

Komen Charity Under Microscope for Funding, Science Reuters

The Fight Against Cancer - And Abortion? Salon.com

Susan G. Komen For the Cure defunds Planned Parenthood. In Deep with Angie Coiro

Amid Breast Cancer Month, Is there Pink Fatigue? NPR's All Things Considered

How is Breast Cancer Culture Undermining Women's Health? America’s Radio News Network

Pink Ribbon Culture and Breast Cancer The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The Big Business of Breast Cancer
Marie Claire

Does Breast Cancer Awareness Month Crowd Out Other Diseases? Slate

Pink Inc. Has Many Starting to See Red The Sacramento Bee

Get Your Pink Off Ottawa Citizen

Komen Pink Ribbons Raise Green and Questions USA Today