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Yiddish is a very expressive language, a blend of Hebrew and German used by Jews in
Europe when they lived in shtetls. One of my favorite Yiddish words is chutzpah. The word has taken on some positive connotations, but I’m using it here in the sense of the Hebrew source word, where it means someone who has overstepped the boundaries of accepted behavior with no shame.
Chutzpah has the benefit of being both expressive, and relatively easy to pronounce, (unless you’re Michelle Bachmann). It is also a very apt description of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation’s recent move to sponsor October as Breast Cancer Action Month.
The Longish Back Story
A little background might help illuminate why this move is so outrageous.
Back in the early 1980’s, with the help of the pharmaceutical giant now called Astra-Zeneca, Komen (then called the Susan G. Komen Foundation — “for the cure” came later) became the dominant voice in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, formerly known as October. The idea was to encourage women to get mammograms by promising, at least initially, that early detection was a woman’s best “prevention.” When it was pointed out that once you had detected something it was too late to prevent it, the message changed to guaranteeing that early detection was a woman’s best “protection,” though protection from what was never made clear.
“Breast Cancer Awareness Month” (BCAM) was largely sponsored by the pharmaceutical
and mammography industries. Komen was — and is — closely tied to both. Thanks to the forces behind the BCAM effort, there was never any mention in the official BCAM materials of the possible environmental links to breast cancer. As a result October came to be known in more progressive health circles as Breast Cancer Industry Month.
Breast Cancer Action (BCA), a national grassroots education and advocacy organization based in San Francisco, became a prominent voice working to re-cast October as Breast Cancer Industry Month. BCA was started in 1990 by women with metastatic breast cancer who knew they were going to die and that the public knew little or less about breast cancer. They had questions and they wanted answers.
The messages offered by BCA for October moved far beyond mammography screening and the over-simplified messages associated with BCAM. They exposed the financial interests behind BCAM and urged an understanding of the complexity of “early detection” as well as acknowledgment of the environmental drivers of breast cancer, including radiation and pesticides (which Astra Zeneca marketed at the time).
As the drum beat of breast cancer awareness reached deafening proportions, Breast Cancer Action encouraged people to look beyond awareness to what actions they could take by working together to stem the tide of breast cancer for everyone.
The Breast Cancer Trademark Business
Around the time that Breast Cancer Awareness Month came to the fore, Komen attempted unsuccessfully to trademark the pink ribbon, which was fast becoming the symbol of breast cancer.
More recently, Komen changed it’s name to Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation and trademarked the phrase “for the cure.” Komen then began suing other organizations that used “for the cure” in their name or fundraising efforts, even those that had nothing to do with breast cancer. As of August, 2010, Komen had more trademark applications pending with the US Patent and Trade office (291) than Google (161).
Think Before You Pink and Komen
One more bit of background information. When the marketing of breast cancer through the sale of products with pink ribbons on them began to grow, Breast Cancer Action initiated in 2002 its award-winning Think Before You Pink Campaign. The purpose of the campaign is to get people to think critically about how the money is raised and where the money goes.
The year Think Before You Pink was launched, a reporter from PR Week called asking why Breast Cancer Action had a campaign targeting Komen. The campaign targets cause marketing for breast cancer, not Komen. But the Komen Foundation has an interesting way of presenting — and apparently thinking of — itself as the only organization doing anything in the breast cancer world. It was clear then and as the campaign moved forward in succeeding years that Komen saw Think Before You Pink as undermining their mission.
Now Komen Wants Action — Breast Cancer Action ?!?!
It seems that Komen now agrees with BCA that there is enough awareness of breast cancer. After all, if you stop the first 10 adults you see in the street and ask if they are aware there is a breast cancer problem in this country and elsewhere, anyone who says “no” must be living under a rock.
Komen wisely wants to move beyond awareness, but to what? The claim they want to move to “breast cancer action month.” Has a familiar ring, right? It’s often said that imitation is he sincerest form of flattery, but sometimes it’s just a rip off. Why would Komen, one of the biggest charities in the world, want to usurp the name of an organization that’s been a thorn in their side for years? Let me think . . .
While it’s conceivable that Komen just chose the words that they thought best suited their efforts, an organization that holds many trademarks and aggressively pursues them also has tons of lawyers at its disposal, and it should have crossed someone’s mind to consider the possibility that an organization named Breast Cancer Action held a trademark that would affect their effort.
For Komen, action means getting a mammogram, buying product the sale of which supports Komen, or participating in a Race for the Cure or a 3-day walk. If walking — or shopping — cured breast cancer, it would surely be cured by now.
Komen is entitled to its view of things, but not under the name of another — and very different — organization. If they want an even bigger empire, they should build it without stepping all over others in the field.
P.S. The American Cancer Society gets an honorary award for chutzpah, for it’s “official sponsor of birthdays” campaign. With mortality rates from many cancers increasing, and with the focus on 5-year survival as a “cure,” the cancer society is making a bold and unsubstantiated claim. Alcoholics Anonymous has far more basis for claiming to be the official sponsor of birthdays.
Copyright Barbara A. Brenner 2011