The Battle “For the Cure” – The Phrase, That Is

Laura Bassett wrote a scathing essay in Huffington Post about Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s legal dealings to win control over the phrase “for the cure.” According to Bassett, “Komen has identified and filed legal trademark oppositions against more than a hundred…charities, including Kites for a Cure, Par for The Cure, Surfing for a Cure and Cupcakes for a Cure – and many of the organizations are too small and underfunded to hold their ground.”

Why would the largest, best funded, most visible breast cancer organization put so much energy (and about a million dollars per year) into trademarking common language like “for the cure”? Answer: To control the breast cancer brand. Indeed the cause of breast cancer has transformed from an important social issue to a brand name with a pink ribbon logo. The brand virtually guarantees consumption, revenues, advertising, and heightened visibility. Dominating the breast cancer brand would solidify the organization’s position in pink ribbon culture and in the marketplace it feeds.

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14 comments to The Battle “For the Cure” – The Phrase, That Is

  • (Comment also left on full essay at OUP Blog)

    Aside from these lawsuits being morally reprehensible on so many levels, Komen’s push to be seen as the last word on “For The Cure” in the breast cancer realm seems a tad deceptive. How do more breast cancer “education” and “awareness” campaigns result in a cure? And early detection and screening programs…also no guarantee of a cure for anybody diagnosed as a result. Just how much of Komen’s fundraising is directed to research that could be classified as “For The Cure”? According to the WEGO Health post mentioned in your essay, it may be as low as 17% in 2009. Is anyone thinking of suing Komen for misleading advertising?

  • Ari

    Is there any way you can engage Komen in a “friendly debate.” My advice is to not come on too harsh or bring up or trivial matters like the “pink culture” surrounding breast cancer and sheroes, the way Barbara Ehrenreich did-it will only alienate people. Just be very polite and ask pressing questions-hit them with the real hard stuff (lack of research into environmental factors that contribute to breast cancer and prevention, or how much money is spent on frivolous things such as “pinking” the white house and breast cancer paraphernalia) and let them expose their own hypocrisy when they can’t provide decent answers to serious questions. I was watching a Q and A with Nancy Brinker and she couldn’t give decent answers to most of the professional questions that she was asked. She just gave “feel good” answers. She said that Komen was going to do more research on enviromental factors contributing to breast cancer, but she could not articulate how they were going to do it. she just said she always listened to people who were smarter and had more professional knowledge than she did and let them dictate.

  • Ari: I would love for there to be a ‘friendly debate.’ Perhaps getting this discussion into the spotlight will encourage something more than canned statements from Komen. Of course, pink culture helps to drive the ‘feel good’ blanket of support that feeds the pink machine, but I agree that the point here is not to alienate people or to create more of an us/them scenario (in this case pink/anti-pink). In the end, we all want the same thing: health, happiness, and to be with the people we love. How do we get there? Probably not through trademark feuds and awareness umbrellas.

  • Ari

    Sorry if I came off as too strong. I really don’t mean to offend you. I just think you could be that much more effective if you focused on the real hard stuff that Komen can not defend. Its true that they invested a lot in treating breast cancer rather than preventing it in the first place and they spend a lot of donation money on frivolous things and capitalize on people’s sentimental feelings. I think you could really expose their hypocrisy by focusing on that. Sorry if I overstepped my boundaries as a lay person.

  • Ari: No, you didn’t offend me at all, but thank you for being so thoughtful. Your point is very well taken. I do agree! I’m glad you commented, and I hope you’ll keep adding to the discussion. I try very hard to focus on critique without conflict as much as possible. I also agree that the system is so huge that we must choose carefully what to address when confronting the jolly pink giant.

    Also, you are welcome to email me with ideas you have about how to get that ‘friendly debate’ going. I keep the phrase in quotations because I realize that certain questions are provocative and controversial regardless of the intention to be amiable and productive.

  • Hi — this is Andrea Rader, Komen spokesperson (without a “canned answer.”) I hope that those of you with questions about our research program go to our website,, and read about it (click on the research and grants tab on the homepage). There’s also a map that lays it out in even more detail — you can get it directly from this link:

    To answer the prevention question, prevention research has accounted for about $50 million of the $500 million we’ve invested in research since we started, including $10 million this year alone. Here’s the link to our prevention and other grants announcements for 2010:

    Thanks for the opportunity to weigh in.

    -Andrea Rader

  • Thanks, Andrea, for the links to Komen’s website. You’re welcome to reply to the concerns raised in the essay as well. Readers would love to hear your thoughts about the trademark issues, intellectual property, the meaning of “for the cure” in terms of research priorities, standards for ethical fundraising, how to maintain the public trust, the viability of evidence-based health information in marketing and advertising for the cause/cure, and the position of Komen amid the multitude of breast cancer organizations across the country and internationally that have very different approaches to the breast cancer problem. Please do weigh in!

  • A Giver

    For me, making the phrase “for the cure” intellectual property really reveals some of the contradictions in “philanthropy.” If the goal of breast cancer organizations is to raise awareness and funds to improve the health of humanity, then why would any truly philanthropic organization do any thing less than celebrate the fact that smaller non-profits working toward the same goal were using the phrase that contributed to their success? If not, I would like to understand how making this phrase intellectual property contributes to the objective of promoting good human health. Whose interests are being protected in this move? Where is the altruism and generosity and care for the welfare of humanity that are at the heart of what we hope philanthropy means when we make donations? In my view, the move to make this common phrase intellectual property with exclusive rights resembles those of large corporations that patent what they “create” (which often already existed in the world, of course) in order to create a kind of quasi-monopoly so that they can extend their bottom line at the expense of smaller, sometimes family-owned business to make a profit (at least until the large corp can hold on to exclusive rights no longer). If we are all working toward a similar goal, why can’t the larger organizations work with the smaller ones rather than undermine their struggles to raise money and awareness for better health?

  • Gayle, great work as always. I find it completely unbelievable that Komen is trying to trademark ‘for the cure.’ I mean, by the grace of God every woman in my family who has had breast cancer has survived it, but how dare they suggest that if my mother, grandmother, or aunts, all knitters, had wanted to throw a local fundraiser “knitting for the cure” or something that they could face legal challenges! Clearly they are trying to monopolize their own branding of “for the cure” so they can be the exclusive recipient of funds from corporate donors looking to pinkwash their products. I mean, “packing tape for the cure!” and “blowdryers for the cure!” Come on. Gayle, do you know how this compares to HIV? Is there a similar trademark of the red ribbon and “until there’s a cure” for World AIDS Day?

  • Andrea – Every dollar, every minute, and every resource that Komen wastes in protecting their “brand” with these lawsuits, is another dollar, minute and resource that is not being used to help women reclaim their lives from this insidious disease. Please address directly the issues raised in this and other essays, and restore the public’s faith that the Komen organization really is in this “for the cure”.

  • The red ribbon (emerging in 1991) is still in the public domain as a consciousness raising symbol for HIV/AIDS awareness. Though it is used commercially (i.e., pins, stickers, magnets, bracelets, etc.), it is a general symbol. It is notably visible in the World AIDS Day campaign and across grass roots organizations. In fact, the red ribbon was not copyrighted intentionally so that no single individual or organization would profit from its use, according to information on this World Aids Day website.

  • Ari

    Ditto with the money spent on frivolous events. For every dollar that is spent on pink equipment, breast cancer paraphernalia, celebrity speakers etc could be used towards providing women with proper care and more research into preventing breast cancer in the first place. I understand that pink is symbolic for many people and I have no problem with that; that is why I was iniatially opposed to Barbara Ehrenreich’s snide remarks on “breast cancer culture” as it could alienate people who are passionate about this cause. But other than for pure symbolism, how does pinking the white house or the NFL contribute to womens’ health.

    No offense to anyone who has ever participated in Komen Race for the Cure event or organizers and volunteers involved in those events. You do great work. Thank you very much for all you have done.

  • M. R.

    Perhaps we can understand the push to trademark “for the cure” if we look at our present economic culture. We believe the private corporation is an essential part our our “comfortable” society. Great efforts are expended to make the corporation succeed. Socialism and liberalism are now “dirty” words. So Komen just wants to “succeed” in growing. It’s mission sounds good. Don’t think too deep, don’t be critical. Especially if you are part of the pink ribbon machine, and your job depends on maintaining or growning the machine. Integrity, intelligence, morality, and ethics don’t pay for your kids school trip to Disney World.

  • Rebecca

    I am impressed with Dr. Sulik’s thoughtful, thorough, and evidenced-based commentary about Komen and the pink ribbon monopoly, capitalist dominance for which they campaign. As a person with friends and family members dealing with breast cancer it is refreshing to see a debate unfold about the real issues that impede, obscure and undermine women’s health. Issues that are unwittingly (and not so unwittingly) being exacerbated by the very organizations who claim to be its greatest champions. I would like to see Komen get back to the heart of their original mission. They need to spend less time on branding and trademarking and claiming intellectual property and engage in 21st century leadership. They could use their influence and resources to bring small and local organizations together to a shared table to engage in disciplined dialogue about how we are going to address breast cancer detection, research, and treatment. I’d like to see Komen leverage its profound bank of resources to sponsor a “race for the cure” in which a wide-array of organizations are invited and encouraged to participate, get encouragement at each mile, and are celebrated across the finish line – instead of setting up a race in which only one participant registers, gets all the endorsements, and brings home all the prizes. We need everyone in the race, we need everyone to win. Not just Komen.

"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

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