Hold Your Noses. Pink Has A Smell

Susan G. Komen for the Cure®’s new fragrance Promise Me has more than a few people up in arms about the lengths this nonprofit organization (or perhaps more appropriately termed, nonprofit corporation), will go to guarantee its position in the breast cancer marketplace. The organization technically is in the business of ending breast cancer not hawking pink ribbon product lines. If it worked as it should, achieving its mission would render the organization and its increasing number of branded products obsolete.

This irony is not lost on a growing number of individuals and organizations taking aim at what they believe to be seriously misdirected activities. Komen’s corporate partnership last October with consumer products investor and operator, TPR Holdings, only invigorated discontent. TPR‘s targeted investments include “scalable mass and prestige opportunities in health, beauty and  wellness categories.” Together, Komen and TPR envisioned “union of beauty and charity” that took the form of a scalable, mass-produced, prestige item specifically designed for Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, a fragrance called Promise Me. The perfume was released in April, given as a complimentary sample to prospective beauty bloggers and reviewers, and is slated to remain on the market for six months “with new editions launching each year.”

Image from Zimbio.com

The Komen-TPR partnership capitalizes both on the famous promise that Komen founder Nancy Brinker made thirty years ago to her sister to end breast cancer and on the cross-promotion of Brinker’s latest book, which chronicles her attempts to keep that promise through the growth of Susan G. Komen for the Cure®. When consumers purchase Promise Me the fragrance from the promotional website or in department stores (i.e., Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom’s, and Sephora at JC Penney), they received a free copy of Promise Me the book (while supplies lasted). The perfume is also available on the Home Shopping Network (HSN), and Brinker was featured on HSN on May 26th to kick off TV sales.

Brinker’s appearance on HSN confirmed for many the mounting suspicion that Susan G. Komen for the Cure® is more interested in being in business to sell Brinker and her cause than to solve the crucial problem that founded the organization three decades ago.

Promise Me’s Fragrance Notes – Image from www.promisemefragrance.com

A scathing essay by KomenWatch titled “The Scent of Exploitation analyzed the Promise Me website and promotion to illustrate the slick marketing and business logic of the beauty/charity partnership. Against a sensual light plum background,” KomenWatch writes, “the copy describing the new perfume is alluring,” a way to …

“tantalize women consumers with sophisticated femininity and a just a hint of sensuality and social conscience…The advertisement oozes inspiration and exquisite attention to detail all the way to the perfume bottle marked with SGK’s signature (and trademarked) running ribbon.”

Featuring the eleven fragrance notes used in Susan G. Komen for the Cure®’s signature formulation, the creators of Promise Me then Komenized the scent by assigning special meaning to each. Pink peony signifies “femininity, tenderness and passion” while providing a “special message of hope.” Orchids represent “love, beauty, and strength.” Musk gives a “warm, sensual finish.”

Enriching the flood of sensuousness with the mandate of optimism, French perfumer Jean Claude Delville adds his own message about what the fragrance inspires: “a long lasting emotion of positive energy, hope, and love…something empowering…that would speak to all women.” As Delville’s message suggests, Susan G. Komen for the Cure® — and mainstream pink culture more generally — uses an idealized feminine aesthetic to stylize the fight against breast cancer. The cause relies on imagery of pretty, happy, optimistic survivors who wear their survivorship with pride, elegance, sensuality, and the perfect blend of cosmetic enhancements.

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The marriage of femininity and consumption as the ultimate means for “doing good” for the cause of breast cancer is the cornerstone of Susan G. Komen for the Cure®’s branding strategy. Multitudes of advertisements suggest the ideal approach to the “war” on breast cancer: Look good; feel good; buy the brand. This prescription is meant for survivors and supporters alike.

The “Inspired to Fight” advertisement for the 2010 Dallas Race for the Cure features a gorgeous bald woman made up to have eyebrows, eyelashes, and a healthy complexion. With head tilted back, a flawless smile, and a pink ribbon streaming around her neck and bare shoulders, this sexy “survivor” with moxy looks back at the camera as if she hasn’t a care in the world. She is “inspired” to wear a ribbon, “fight” the good fight, and showcase the beauty of her survivorship. In this ad, she could just as easily be spritzing herself with Promise Me fragrance.

Nancy Brinker on the Home Shopping Network

Nancy Brinker herself is the ultimate embodiment of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® brand. In her appearance on the Home Shopping Network to sell the Promise Me Eau de Toilette Gift Set at the special price of $39.99, the immaculately groomed Brinker wore a pink jacket embroidered with Susan G. Komen for the Cure®’s trademarked running ribbon. Brinker seldom wears anything other than pink, ribboned attire in her public presentations. In addition to the usual commentary about her sister, her promise, and all of the good her organization has done, Brinker equated the fragrance of her signature perfume with the prettiness of pink.

“It feels like, and has the fragrance of, what you would imagine pink is like. And you feel it when you wear it…It’s such a pretty color, a beautiful bottle…”

By the end of Brinker’s 15-minute TV spot HSN sold nearly 2000 Promise Me gift sets. TPR Holdings aims for roughly $30 million in sales this year, generating $3 to $4 million for Komen. Next year “another scent with new juice and different packaging” will launch Komen into yet another revenue-producing cycle.

With all of its other partnerships, fundraising events, advertising, and public relations promos, Komen has obtained significant financial leverage and the brand is a household name. Some organizations and disease-specific causes wish they had a fraction of the attention and resources amassed by the pink machine. Komen’s approach, however, does not come without significant trade-offs that could end up undermining the organization. Stay tuned.


See also, Taking Action Against Pinkwashing: An Interview with Breast Cancer Action’s Karuna Jaggar.

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20 comments to Hold Your Noses: Pink Has A Smell

  • Komen continues to disappoint.

    “It feels like and has the fragrance of, what you might imagine pink is like. And you feel it when you wear it…It’s such a pretty color, a beautiful bottle…”

    Holding my nose for sure!

    This sounds ridiculous and has absolutely nothing to do with breast cancer or finding a cure. It’s really quite disturbing. Staying tuned for part 2 for sure.

  • Thanks for writing this Gayle. Every time I see that picture of the pink woman it makes me sick. Anyone who thinks that’s what breast cancer looks like needs to spend some time at an infusion center. Far less glamorous. I don’t remember anyone with lipstick. Really, eyelashes either.


  • The picture of the woman in the advertisement, this perfume, Nancy Brinker’s relentless push to pinkurate the marketplace and drown out competition, and indeed dissension, are all painful metaphors for what is wrong with the breast cancer movement today. The real needs of the breast cancer community have become subjugated to the longevity and marketing needs of Breast Cancer ™, the brand. The backlash is coming.

  • Great article Gayle. I was sickened by the “Promise Me” campaign, not to mention how many chemo patients can’t STAND the reek of perfume. I won’t address the myriad of issues that I have with “selling pink” and the need for greater transparency. I will say that to Komen’s credit they DO provide important research funds, while also providing a healthy $450,000+ salary to their former CEO (I couldn’t find current stats, sorry!). Love them or hate them, for now they have a microphone. As consumers and advocates, we need to bring pressure to bear and speak out as to how they use their public stage. Thank you for doing that, and I’m looking forward to Part II.

    Thank you, Lori. Your post on this was great. Accountability and transparency… JUST WHAT WE NEED!

  • Linda

    Thank you Gayle! Your powerful prose adds a clear voice to this important dialogue.

  • I keep thinking I’m going to write an essay on this for my blog, but the entire subject makes me sick. Especially now that I am dealing with a new metastatic diagnosis. Breast cancer is not pretty and is not about gorgeous women who jog in pink hats, who are happy and beautiful bald, and who are eager to buy anything with a pink ribbon. It is ugly, with parts of our bodies cut away one by one, our hair falling out, our blood cells dying, our children crying. And, for women like me – no cure ever. Komen isn’t helping women with cancer, they are romanticizing a very ugly disease. Money spent out marketing and awareness should be spent on research.

    It’s shameful.

  • NO!!! NO, NO, NO!!!!! I’m so sorry to hear that you’re dealing with this. I just feel completely at a loss. This entire industry is shameful, and pink perfume is the stink to end all stinks. Strengthening thoughts to you, sister rebel. This won’t go down quietly, I PROMISE YOU that.

  • Great post Gayle!

    Let’s be honest, if one more dollar were really going to cure Cancer… it would’ve been cured by now!

    This is SICK! Too many people profit off the Cancer “Industry”, and disgusts me to think that it’s at my expense! I think Komen probably started out with the best intentions, but they’ve totally lost focus. I agree with Lori- there’s no need for the CEO of a non-profit to take that much of a salary. If their CEO really cared that much about the “Cause” or the “Cure” (don’t sue me Komen), they would have donated a portion back to the charity. The worst part is that many of the Pink Ribbon Products they sell actually contain known carcinogens. Or how about to accept a portion of the proceeds from a pink “Hope” gun http://www.discountgunsales.com/walther-p-22-hope-edition-34-pr-4228.html. I mean really??? How can these people live with themselves? If the money doesn’t go to research and it doesn’t go to patients who NEED help (like me who’s Unemployed, on Medicaid, Food Stamps, etc. since my diagnosis at 31 and Komen wouldn’t give me a penny unless I take Tamoxifen- a drug that has side effects of two ther kinds of Cancer)… my quesion is where exactly does it go??? We are all “aware” already. We need education. The only cure is prevention, and sadly, it looks like Komen has no intentions of adding that to their agenda.

    The GG 🙂

  • uvmer

    How does Nancy Brinker sleep at night? She is very good at making money, but not very good at KEEPING PROMISES. Research is the only key. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. Seems like she is more focused on keeping HER job. All about $$$….sickens me. Rise up REBELS!! We need to find a cure and put them out of business.

  • Gayle,

    This is an excellent, insightful essay. As someone touched — oops mauled and mutilated — by breast cancer, I also can testify that it is not pretty and fem. The reality is ugly. And the aftermath — if one is lucky enough to get to an aftermath — is brutal.

    How dare these people exploit the public for their own gain? And of all things, a perfume? Something someone on chemo or who has had chemo most likely can’t stand the stench of.

    Oh, this latest ploy stinks, alright.

  • Thank you all for your comments. The beautification of breast cancer for the purpose of revenue production is a sad consequence of current campaigns. In the meantime, the realities of breast cancer get lost. Suffering, anguish, illness, loss, anger, all of those dimensions on the spectrum of human experience are either suppressed or vilified. But without them it’s too easy to trivialize the disease and ignore profit motives and conflicts of interest that undermine real progress. It has to stop. As Uvmer said, “Rise up REBELS!!”

  • In seeing the advertisement named “Inspired to Fight” for the 2010 Race: that says it all, this woman’s image is obscene…

  • Thanks for further raising awareness of this important merchandising slant. I also don’t know how Nancy Brinker can sleep at night. We rebels must rise up; who else will do it for us? It’s so refreshing when I go to a cancer-related event and don’t see pink. When I do see pink, I see red. You go, girl!

  • Mary

    GG, OMG, a pink gun! “That would be one way to decrease the death rate from breast cancer”, she said with a sarcastic gleam in her eye, “though it may increase the suicide rate”! Koman’s insanity might do that anyway! It just gets curiouser and curiouser. Way too much money being made at our expense and with no benefit to finding the cause, which is where we need to be!

  • Susan

    I can’t believe that Nancy Brinker did not stop to think that by making a perfume she would offend the people that she is supposedly trying to help. Because I respectfully give the Komen Machine Credit for raising a huge amount of money for breast cancer when you use means that cause cancer and you offend every person going through breast cancer treatment that can’t have perfume near them you tell the world to go right ahead and wear perfume around people going through treatment. Just the thought of Komen selling fragrance makes me want to vomit. Ever since chemo and radiation treatment, perfume makes me violently ill. This was a terrible error on Nancy Brinker’s part and I hope your exposing this will kill her fragrance line. It’s too bad we aren’t all able to kill the same thing and that’s breast cancer. At least the National Breast Cancer Coalition has set a deadline for 2020 to end breast cancer. This is the direction we need to be moving in, not selling perfume. I am ashamed that the public gets the wrong image and we are moving backwards in helping breast cancer. Wake up Nancy Brinker!

  • Hi Gayle,

    I can only join the throng of others. I was totally disgusted to learn how greed has changed what was staated (at least I believe it was) in good faith. The message it sends is sickening and I thank you for doing this blog. See you soon, I hope, Kirsten

  • In the USA Today article that came out on this topic, journalist Liz Szabo wrote that Brinker is “listening to women’s concerns. She says she has asked Promise Me’s manufacturer to look into reformulating the perfume to remove any irritating scents. And she’s confident that its ingredients are safe, noting that none of them have been proven to cause cancer in humans.” I don’t think she’s really listening… http://yourlife.usatoday.com/health/medical/cancer/story/2011/07/Komens-pink-ribbons-raise-green-and-questions/49472438/1

  • Joan Feuer

    A prior poster talked about the Komen organization refusing to help her unless she was willing to take Tomoxifen. Is Komen linked to the pharmaceutical producing that drug? In other words, do they profit, either directly or indirectly, from people taking Tomoxifen?

  • Paul Farber

    I have felt for sometime that Nancy Brinker was a marketing genius. I suspect that her late husband had a lot to do with it; but they saw an opportunity to create a revenue stream that was indisputably altruistic in it’s nature. Yet all the while, I hypothesize, she enjoys a multitude of personal revenue streams which are cleverly designed to be difficult to trace, and are still, under the law legitimate for her to obtain. I’m merely suggesting this; Nancy Brinker is far from the altruist she fashions herself to be. Unfortunately she has many levels of consultants who protect her image at every turn, and it will no doubt be very difficult to ever determine exactly how much, and by what means she converts these dollars to her personal use.

"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

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"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

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Marie Claire

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