Study: Pink Ads Prove Counterproductive for Breast-Cancer Awareness

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Despite years of a coordinated advertising and branding campaign, a new study shows that use of the color pink doesn’t work so well for awareness of and fundraising for women’s issues like breast cancer.

The problem is not that some women are turned off by the traditionalism and underlying stereotype of a pink brand, but rather that too large a proportion of women directly identify with the color. Rotterdam School of Management professor Stefano Puntoni showed in a series of ten experiments over three years that women were less likely to think themselves at risk and less likely to say they would donate to breast or ovarian cancer advertisements if they employed a pink color scheme.

The underlying cause, Puntoni theorized for the Harvard Business Review, is that when a woman perceives that a cancer advertisement is aimed directly at her (by the use of gender-specific colors) then there is a higher likelihood she will subconsciously go into a state of denial.

“By adding all this pink, by asking women to think about gender, you’re triggering that [mechanism],” Puntoni told the HBR. “You’re raising the idea that this is a female thing. It’s pink; it’s for you. You could die. “

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Despite these findings, many breast cancer awareness and fundraising organizations prominently utilize pink in their branding such as Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Breastcancer.org. According to the study, gender-specific approaches are counterproductive for the groups’ goals.

Puntoni did not originally set out to criticize longstanding breast cancer marketing. In fact, his original hypothesis was that his experiments would confirm that pink was the best color for women’s issues. Instead, time after time that his group ran a study, the data skewed in the other direction.

“We thought, ‘This can’t be right.’ So we kept running studies … It keeps happening,” Puntoni told the HBR.

Still, some anecdotal evidence would suggest that Puntoni’s study may not paint the whole picture. Marketing Week reported that one organization, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, successfully changed its brand color scheme from purple to pink after their consumer research showed that the public positively associated the color with breast cancer charities.

Everett Rosenfeld is a TIME contributor. Find him on Twitter at @Ev_Rosenfeld. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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