October is breast cancer awareness month, but have you ever wondered where the famous pink ribbon that symbolizes it came from? The ribbon is all over breast cancer shirts, pinned to sleeves, and tattooed on the fields of sporting events. It’s also helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for nonprofits (which not everyone thinks is a good thing); but it didn’t just magically appear one day as a massive symbol of hope and triumph.
No, its history actually hearkens back to two different (completely unrelated) movements over 40 years ago.
The merging of symbolism between breast cancer awareness and the pink ribbon first began as an anti-terrorism campaign. In 1979, Penney Laingen, the wife of a hostage who’d been taken in Iran, was inspired to tie yellow ribbons around the trees in her front yard. Once the nightly news caught wind of the story, the connection between a ribbon and a movement was born. Laingen wanted to see her husband again, and in solidarity with her cause, thousands of ribbons began popping up across the nation. A powerful symbol was born.
About eleven years later as the yellow ribbons made a return during the advent of the Gulf War, AIDS activists decided to borrow the concept, but change the color. In their own words, the activist group Visual AIDS wanted to commemorate those who were dying here at home from the disease with a red ribbon “because red [was] the color of passion.” Visual AIDS spun their ribbon into the famous upside-down loop we all know today, and when they pinned it to Jeremy Irons at the Tony Awards, a pre-internet viral sensation was born.
Almost overnight, every charitable cause in America needed their own unique ribbon. The New York Times even dubbed 1992 as the “year of the ribbon.”
All of a sudden, the pop culture kindling was in place, but the famous pink ribbon hadn’t caught fire yet; it still needed a spark. Again, enter the media.
Early in 1992, Alexandra Penney, then the editor in chief of Self, was busy designing the magazine’s second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue. A grassroots peach colored ribbon already existed for breast cancer awareness, but the founder of that movement didn’t want to work with Penney and Self, so the magazine decided to just make their own — a pink one, which would hopefully be able to help replicate the success of the mag’s first awareness month issue the year prior.
Breast cancer ribbons and shirts generate millions annually, but activists have long-accused nonprofits of spending as little as 5 percent of donations on actual research
In fall of 1992, Estée Lauder makeup counters handed out 1.5 million ribbons as part of a joint venture with the magazine, each accompanied by a laminated card describing a proper breast self-exam. Breast cancer awareness seems like a quintessential part of the American experience, but it really went mainstream that fall in 1992. It also just so happened to collide with a change in philosophy across all of corporate America that had begun in the late 80s: public-facing philanthropy could be great for sales.
Over a dozen major corporate players rushed to partner with “breast cancer” as their charity of choice, but it was a program spearheaded by Avon cosmetics that really took the pink ribbon to the next level. And arguably, it was the ribbon, itself, which took Avon (an aging brand at the time) and the breast cancer buzz to the next level, as well.
About two inches long, the original Avon pink ribbon was a legitimate piece of jewelry, half pink enamel and half gold cast. Int he middle was a flowering gold rose — Avon’s own personal touch. Both the pin and a smaller, more male-friendly version retailed for $2. In its first two years, the pin raised $10 million.
Communications experts at the time knew exactly why the ribbon became a massive success. Unlike AIDS, for instance, breast cancer basically completely avoids “lifestyle issues.” Breast cancer also provides the charitable credentials in exchange for a very small investment — after all, what does “awareness” even really mean, besides just saying the word?
And in some ways, the ubiquity of the ribbon has frustrated many legitimate activists, who don’t see the value in just slapping an image on some breast cancer shirts.
“There is a value to awareness, but awareness of what, and to what end?” asked Barbara Brenner, activist and executive director of Breast Cancer Action (BCA) in San Francisco back in a 1998 interview. “We need changes in the direction the research is going, we need access to care—beyond mammograms—we need to know what is causing the disease, and we need a cure. The pink ribbon is not indicative of any of that.”