Baker Hughes, a Texas-based oil services company that performs fracking, has slapped some pink paint on their drills to show their support for the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation. This partnership is problematic for several reasons, including, as Lindsay Abrams of Salon reports, that fracking is associated with a carcinogen called benzene. (This is not the first time the organization has been involved in awkward public moves.) The blowback against the Komen foundation is just beginning: Lizz Winstead, cocreator of The Daily Show tweeted “Cancer for the Cure!!!” and Sarah Silverman, among many others, also expressed shock.
This is a classic case of awareness advertising gone wrong. By co-opting the color pink, the Komen Foundation has been hugely successful at spreading awareness of the disease but it has also, on occasion, lost control of its message. It has enabled companies, like Baker Hughes, to pinkwash themselves, distracting consumers from potentially carcinogenic products. In a statement yesterday, a Komen spokeswoman said that the decision to install pink drills was a personal one taken by Baker Hughes and their employees.
“It’s not like Komen installed the pink drills themselves, but they certainly enabled this kind of support to happen,” says Dave Levy, a communications professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston (and a former coworker of mine). “If you want other people to share your message, the risk is that you can’t control the kind of people who will do the sharing.” (The Komen Foundation has not responded to interview requests.)
But does this mean that all awareness campaigns are bad news? Not necessarily, says Levy. He points to the many social media campaigns that have gone viral and effectively drawn attention to a cause. For instance, the ALS ice bucket challenge successfully got people’s attention and raised $115 million in donations.
“ALS couldn’t control who took the ice-bucket challenge. There were people who disagreed with political figures who took the challenge, but it didn’t matter,” he says. “If your only goal is to create awareness, you want people who already support you going out there and telling other people about you.”
However, Levy points out, awareness alone is a fairly superficial goal. “If you don’t care about what their attitudes are or actually changing behavior–which, it seems like Komen doesn’t–then you’ll take awareness in any way you can,” he says. “The big question is what matters more: showing that you have increased support, or doing it in a way that doesn’t piss off your current supporters.”