Marketing and charities make for odd couple

Peter Fricker
Vancouver Sun
Publication Date:
July 16, 2008


Here’s a conundrum. Why would a breast cancer charity help promote the meat industry when red meat has been linked to breast cancer in numerous studies? The short answer is money but the full story involves science, barbeques and rodeo cowboys in pink shirts.

Over the past few years a new piece of jargon has emerged in the world of charitable fundraising. “Cause-related marketing” involves a business partnering with a charity for mutual benefit. Usually, this means a company donating some of the profit on a product to the charity (For every pizza you purchase ten cents will go to needy children!) In return, the company’s reputation is enhanced and people who support the charity are more likely to buy the product.

The organization and promotion of these deals can be complex, with multiple partnerships and a variety of products being involved – all requiring a full advertising and PR blitz. Major events are sometimes used as a focal point and much hoopla ensues.

But what happens when the purpose of a corporate partner is at odds with the cause of the charity? One of the more high-profile cause-related initiatives is the pink-themed promotion for breast cancer fundraising. One strand of this campaign is the Tough Enough to Wear Pink events held at rodeos across North America, including B.C.’s Cloverdale Rodeo and the upcoming Mighty Fraser Rodeo in Abbotsford (July 31-August 2).

A key partner, Wrangler clothing company, raises money through sales of pink Wrangler shirts and other pink-themed merchandise at the events. A percentage of the price goes to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF) or local breast cancer charities. The rodeos get “feel good” PR and a positive image, useful when animal activists are lambasting them as spectacles of animal abuse.

But here’s what’s wrong with this picture. Rodeos and the livestock industry go together like a burger in a bun. Most rodeos are accompanied by a livestock show, are often managed by ranchers and cattlemen and feature ubiquitous beef barbeques. Last year, for example, the Calgary Stampede hosted “Beef 2007” the International Livestock Congress. So, given the links between meat and cancer, why would a cancer charity associate itself with rodeos across the country?

Well, the Vancouver Humane Society wrote to the CBCF to ask just that. The CBCF, in its reply, said: “Scientific studies in this area have been inconclusive and therefore red meat consumption has not been identified as a known risk factor for breast cancer.”

The science may be “inconclusive” but the evidence is growing, judging by this shortlist of studies from 2007 alone:

  • A University of Leeds study found that women eating large amounts of red and processed meat have a significantly higher chance of developing breast cancer compared to those on vegetarian diets.
  • A study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention showed that Asian women who adopted the Western “meat-sweet” (high in meat and sugar) were at higher risk of developing breast cancer.
  • An American Institute for Cancer Research study found that women who consistently consume a diet high in grilled, barbecued or smoked meat and low in vegetables and fruit significantly increased their risk of developing post-menopausal breast cancer.
  • Earlier research has found similar links. In 2006, for example, a Harvard Medical School study found that younger women who regularly ate red meat appear to face an increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Anyone can easily find this research and more on reputable medical websites. But let’s assume (as the CBCF seems to) that “inconclusive” means there is no link between meat consumption and breast cancer. What about other cancers?

In 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund published a major study which concluded: “There is strong evidence that red and processed meats are causes of bowel cancer, and that there is no amount of processed meat that can be confidently shown not to increase risk.” Perhaps this isn’t relevant to the CBCF because it doesn’t implicate their cancer.

When organizations try to enhance their images with motherhood and apple pie causes, we should be suspicious. Rodeos are anachronistic spectacles of animal abuse. Their Tough Enough to Wear Pink events are an obvious attempt to enhance their image by cloaking themselves in a rosy pink, sacrosanct cause – the fight against cancer.

That’s understandable (if not very respectable) but what is hard to fathom is why a cancer charity would be associating with activities that promote a product that may cause cancer. The Tough Enough to Wear Pink events are supposed to “raise awareness” about breast cancer – but obviously not about links between cancer and meat consumption. That wouldn’t be too popular with the cattlemen.

Cancer charities like the CBCF may find these events attractive as fundraisers but money shouldn’t blind them to the motives of their partners – especially when those motives conflict with their own cause.