Friday, July 30, 2010

Selling stuff to raise money & awareness (by Suzie)

When I read the news about the booby-loving middle-schooler (see my post 7/9/10), I had never heard of the Keep-a-Breast Foundation, which gets money from merchandise, such as the wristband the boy wore. I had, however, seen the Save the Ta-Tas T-shirts and bumperstickers in my apartment complex full of college students.

In 2000, the KAB founders "created an awareness campaign like none other by harnessing the power of art to communicate complex feelings and thoughts about health, the female form and ultimately about breast cancer." I'm sure many women appreciate the nonprofit's work. In case anyone doesn't know, however, art therapy and feminist art of the body were around long before KAB.

KAB helps women cast their breasts in plaster, with the casts painted by artists or the women themselves. The casts displayed on the website are mostly of perky breasts, even though many young women do not fit this mold.

"The success of these art benefits put breast cancer awareness on the map for a younger generation," the foundation's website says. I'm sure it educated some young people, but I don't heart hyperbole.

Not counting young women raised in religious cults or countries in which they get little information about their bodies, are there any who don’t know that young women can get breast cancer? After all, pink ribbons and merchandise are everywhere, and many of the media illustrations for breast-cancer awareness depict thin, young white women with their hand on their breast. If your memory isn’t good, Google images for “women with breast cancer” or check out Sociological Images.

It's great that KAB educates young people on cancer at booths, events, etc. But its website offers little that can’t be found better elsewhere, such as this Canadian site on breast self-exams or the Breast Cancer Fund on environmental toxins. If KAB lacks the money to improve its website, at least it could provide links to sites with more information.

The foundation also needs to be careful with health facts, such as saying: "Studies have shown that stress actually can promote cancer indirectly by weakening the immune system’s anti-tumor defense or by encouraging new tumor-feeding blood vessels to form." I agree, chronic stress is bad. But the National Cancer Institute says studies have not proven that chronic stress increases the risk of cancer, although it does seem to hurt people fighting cancer. Why am I nitpicking? Because many cancer patients feel blame, including blame that they can't create a stress-free life for themselves. In fact, I feel that right now as I'm writing on deadline.

Another blog post reports on the recent ASCO meeting, with a brief teaser about "sea sponges being used in treatment." News at 11!!! Here's only a slightly longer version: Studies suggest that women with advanced breast cancer who've already received a lot of treatment live longer by getting a new drug called Eribulin, which is synthesized from sea sponges.

While searching ASCO abstracts, I found the latest study of Eribulin and my cancer, a subtype of soft-tissue sarcoma. So, points to KAB on that. On its blog, I also found a great video on "The Story of Cosmetics," which I'll give its own post, but you can see it now. The first line has a bearing on this post: "This is a story about a world obsessed with stuff."

KAB can reach young people in places like the Warped Tour, a summer tour by performers who are mostly male, which might be less welcoming to other breast-cancer nonprofits. Its blog features a testimonial from a woman with breast cancer who, before she was diagnosed, educated her teen son after they saw a KAB booth at a concert. She says he later bought “I love boobies” wristbands for himself and his friends, and she felt proud.

KAB’s site has a breakdown of its fundraisers (not including the merch) and donations to other nonprofits, such as the Young Survivor Coalition. Last year, the foundation donated almost $8,000 to a survivor to help pay her medical bills. They have specifics for applying for a grant from Emergen-C; otherwise, I couldn’t find the criteria for their grants. It's possible that a survivor who donated to the foundation might want to know how she, too, could get help with medical bills.

The for-profit Loser Kids sells KAB's “I (heart) boobies” wristbands and T-shirts, and says 100 percent of the profits go to the nonprofit. Selling things attached to a cause drives traffic to commercial websites.

The for-profit Ta-Tas Brand Clothing, also based in Southern California, could be seen as a competitor with a similar slogan, the trademarked "save the ta-tas" vs. "keep a breast." It sells T-shirts, wristbands, Boob Lube, etc. I found the "Friends don't let friends lose ta-tas" T unnerving, perhaps because I've had to decide on how much of my body I wanted removed in surgery. I lost parts to save my life.

T-shirts sell for $26.95 up to $39 for a tie-dye version. The company gave 5 percent of its gross sales to many nonprofit organizations until the formation of the nonprofit Save the Ta-Tas Foundation in 2008, according to a letter from its controller, Lesli Gilmore. Now the foundation and the company donate to the Concern Foundation, which funds young cancer researchers.

Gilmore also noted: “The Brand largely supports overhead and administrative costs of the [Ta-Tas] Foundation, which is why you will see our operating expenses were less than 1% in 2009!”

I contacted the foundation in April because of the lack of information on its site. For example, I found a business page saying, “A portion of every sale is given to the fight against breast cancer,” but I couldn’t find what percentage “a portion” represented. When I went back recently, the site impressed me with its clarity.

Giving only 5 percent "is an abomination," one of my friends said. But another was glad to get any amount for cancer research.

Many nonprofits sell merchandise to fund their work and raise awareness. Many companies donate to worthy causes for tax reasons, public relations and marketing. Others tie donations directly to sales. In other words, buy their yogurt and they'll donate to the cause. Some, such as the Ta-Tas Brand, depend on the cause for sales. For example, if breast cancer got cured tomorrow, I think sales would drop, although women might still buy "I love my big ta-tas" shirts.

I could spend every day picking apart nonprofits, including ones I support. I’m singling out KAB and Save the Ta-Tas because of the marketing they chose. Kris Frieswick had an excellent article on the marketing of breast cancer last year in the Boston Globe, and Jeanne Sather has criticized it at length.

In my previous post on this topic, I asked whether the money and awareness raised is worth the sexy marketing. Sociological Images answers that question with a series of posts, including ones titled: “Do Breast Exams Because Boobs are Hot” and “Boobies Against Breast Cancer.”