What the Komen Controversy Taught Us

Now that the dust has settled and a sufficient number of scapegoats have resigned, Susan G. Komen for the Cure has emerged from its decision to defund Planned Parenthood with fewer left-leaning supporters and a damaged brand. Their initial decision to defund Planned Parenthood came to pass after a board ruling to restrict funding to organizations under investigation by Congress.

After the backlash SGK amended the restriction to criminal investigations only. In the end, funding was not returned Planned Parenthood only the ability to apply in the future. Planned Parenthood snagged a slew of support and New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg coughed up some of his Hollywood cameo money in the sum of $250,000.

SGK never funded stem cell research but as of now they cut funding to organizations that work with embryonic cells.

We all know what this means. Blogs, tweets and every news outlet known to man forged a full-fledged frenzy attacking the organization’s decision. Fast Company, once an ardent supporter of SGK’s marketing campaign, even blasted its decision in How Susan G. Komen Torpedoed Their Brand

SGK is no stranger to controversy. For years, the group received criticism for putting pink ribbons on questionable products like Duraflame, KFC and Yoplait yogurt, which happens to be loaded with corn syrup and artificial ingredients. The hypocrisy caused many to question the organization’s intentions.

Pink ribbons on buckets of KFC may in fact raise money for cancer research but it intrinsically conflicts with the organization’s mission of health. Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO, defends SGK eloquently, yet with circumlocutory non-sense, by saying that it’s only right SGK uses capitalism in a capitalist culture to help find a cure.

The problem with this argument is that it discounts, even ignores, the power of prevention by eating well and staying active. When pink ribbons go on buckets of KFC, she asserts, SGK is simply using the market economy for the good of the whole.

While SGK’s actions intrinsically conflict with its own mission, it still manages to raise $180 million a year with a whopping 75,000 volunteers.

To be sure, organizations and non-profits fulfill important roles in our society. Susan G. Komen purports to be the leading breast cancer research organization in the country; but if it isn’t preaching prevention and its advancements never make the headlines, we need to ask what role does it play.

The SGK base is mostly composed of cancer survivors: women battling cancer and grievers of those who died of breast cancer. The founder herself, Ms. Brinker, lost her sister, Susan, to the disease.

Although I believe this group would welcome me with open arms because my mom died of breast cancer, I have chosen not to belong to honor my mother. She thought SGK failed to emphasize the importance that diet and prevention can play in ending breast cancer. She wasn’t a zealot. She didn’t begrudge people who did find solace in SGK’s offerings. She simply didn’t participate because she felt it ignored an important part of the problem.

There are several ways to look at SGK. You can see an organization run by a woman who lets her religious and political ideology discount her pink ribbon base. You could see an unbelievably successful marketing campaign that is studied in the likes of Wharton.

Alternatively, you could see what I see: a very successful, large-scale community group for people affected by breast cancer. For that, Nancy Brinker should be praised.

I also see a group looking for ritual and a way to remember their loved ones. They hold onto their pink ribbons as if it’s a Blessed Sacrament. It has become a symbol of the search for the cure.

And that provides hope. We idolize those pink ribbons in order to become one with the scientists, researchers and doctors developing the almighty cure. The supporters, I surmise, selflessly want a cure so no one will experience the heartache they have known. The organization may not be finding a cure but it’s possible we’ve been lying to ourselves all along.

Their history shows that of community group with a religious affiliation who happens to give money to breast cancer research. There’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps they just need to start being more honest about their true identity, and maybe we should follow suit. Don’t we all like to think we a little bit more noble and moral than we actually are?

Susan G. Komen gives a group of mourners a ritual and forum for anyone affected by breast cancer.  I’m not so much worried that the organization won’t survive the bad press, but I worry who is looking out for the potentially displaced community. The institution to which they belonged may have failed them but they still need a place to congregate.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “What the Komen Controversy Taught Us

  1. Thoughtful commentary, Lauren – I’ve never thought about the Komen group with regard to their misguided use of their pink ribbon on junk food. Perhaps good intentions are too easily rerouted in the name of big business….

  2. “if [SGK] isn’t preaching prevention and its advancements never make the headlines, we need to ask what role does it play”

    This seems to be the question that SGK really needs to answer, and for more people to really give thought to.

    Nice piece.

  3. Brendan

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Prevention should be on the top of the list for SGK, right next to finding a cure. However, I fully support their decision to stop giving money to planned parenthood. One, it’s their money they can do what they want with it. Two, I think planned parenthood doesn’t deserve the money unless it can prove that every cent is going to breast exams and treatment. 71% of planned parenthood’s business is STD’s, contraception, and abortions. I support their decision. If I could choose where I put my federal tax dollars, planned parenthood would be on the bottom of the list. Scratch that, it wouldn’t be on the list.

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