Pink "Buckets for the Cure" Collaboration Between KFC and Komen Draws Sharp Criticism

Roxanne Nelson

April 29, 2010

April 29, 2010 — Sharp criticism has been leveled at the latest "pinking" campaign to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer — a collaboration between fast-food franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and the cancer advocacy group Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Considering that high-fat fast foods lead to obesity, and obesity is a known risk factor for all cancers, not only breast cancer, this is an especially tasteless campaign, according to Breast Cancer Action (BCA).

It was this national nonprofit education and advocacy organization that coined the term "pinkwashing" to describe the situation where a company purports to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink-ribboned product, but manufactures products that are linked to the disease.

This latest campaign between KFC and Komen is "simply pinkwashing at its worst," Barbara A. Brenner, JD, executive director of BCA, told Medscape Oncology. "This is just so wrong on every level. . . .  This is so much more about KFC's bottom line than about curing breast cancer," she said.

Donation to Breast Cancer

KFC has guaranteed a minimum donation of $1 million, and the goal is to raise $8.5 million by the end of the campaign, which would be the largest single donation ever given to Komen.

BCA notes that on the official campaign Web site, in very small print, consumers are told that "customer purchases of KFC buckets during the promotion will not directly increase the total contribution."

"KFC, owned by the world's largest restaurant company, could surely afford to donate the $8.5 million independently of the Buckets for the Cure promotion," according to BCA's Web site. "Instead, they have decided to use this opportunity to improve their brand and drive up sales of their products."

In an interview, Ms. Brenner pointed out that low-income neighborhoods are prime targets for fast-food outlets, becuase they are typically underserved by grocery stores with healthier options. "People in these communities are already disproportionately affected by not only breast cancer, but health issues like obesity and diabetes," she said. "I believe that Komen cares about the underserved, and they are well aware of the disparities in outcomes for breast cancer, yet they partner with a company that exploits them."

BCA has launched a counter-campaign, called "What the Cluck?," which encourages people to write to KFC and Komen and urge them to end Buckets for the Cure.

Another stinging criticism came from Elizabeth Kucinich, wife of Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). On April 15, Ms. Kucinich sent a letter to Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker, requesting that they halt the campaign. Not mincing words, she wrote that "selling chicken in a pink bucket to raise money for breast cancer research is like selling pink cigarettes to benefit lung cancer or selling pink bottles of liquor to support Alcoholics Anonymous. It is outrageous!"

Surprise That Komen Was Involved

The campaign has also raised eyebrows among some healthcare professionals, who expressed surprise that an organization such as Susan G. Komen for the Cure — which is geared toward educating women about breast cancer, helping them reduce their risks, and funding research for treatment and a cure — would associate itself with fast food.

Alice Bender, MS, RD, nutrition communications manager at the American Institute for Cancer Research, sees this campaign as a "missed opportunity."

"Certainly we support the Komen mission to cure cancer, and their mission overlaps with ours," she said in an interview. "But we see this partnership [with KFC] as a missed opportunity. Right now our nation is at a crossroads in healthcare, and there is an increased awareness of obesity and its role in cancer risk, as well as other illnesses."

Dining at establishments like KFC should be an occasional event; it is not the kind of food that is going to lower cancer risks, Ms. Bender pointed out. "Fast food can contribute to cancer risks, [being] overweight, and obesity."

Although fast-food restaurants have some options that are healthier than others, "they are not the kind of places that we want people visiting on a frequent basis," she said. "This could have been a campaign to promote healthier foods if Komen had partnered with an organization that promoted healthier eating."

Jennifer Harvey, MD, from the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, who coauthored a recent essay on responsible use of the pink ribbon, agreed. "Unfortunately, consumption of fried foods may lead to obesity as well as cardiovascular disease," she told Medscape Oncology. "Obesity is a well-documented risk factor for the development of breast cancer. The campaign may improve breast cancer awareness, but one hopes that healthier alternatives are chosen, such as the grilled chicken."

Dr. Harvey reiterated that it is "unfortunate that pink buckets were not used to promote the healthier choices, as well as breast cancer awareness. This may lead to healthier choices in general."

Raising Awareness and Educating Women

However, Komen spokesperson Andrea Rader explained that their collaboration offers their organization an opportunity to spread their message, especially to women in areas that they normally are unable to easily reach. "There are 900 KFC outlets located in cities or towns where we do not have an affiliate," she said in an interview. "We see this as an opportunity to reach out to them."

The goal of the campaign is not only to raise funds, but also to spread breast cancer awareness and educational messages. "From past experience, we do know that when people see this type of promotion, they tend to act on it," Ms. Rader said. "They will visit the Web site or speak to their doctor — they will get information and educate themselves."

Ms. Rader is hopeful that most people who see the pink buckets or the advertisements will be motivated to seek more information. "I don't expect 12 million women to be calling their doctors," she said, "but I envision many of them visiting the Web site and learning more about breast cancer."

During the first 2 days of the campaign, more than 200,000 visitors clicked on the Buckets for the Cure Web site. "A lot of people have had an opportunity to get engaged and informed, and that is key to us," she said.

As far as the food being unhealthy, Ms. Rader pointed out that there are healthier options available at KFC, such as grilled chicken and vegetables, and nutrition information is available on the Web site. While she acknowledged that Komen does not expressly direct people to select the healthier options, the information is there. "Our campaign is not about endorsing a particular project but about an opportunity to engage the public," she said. "Information about breast cancer is still lacking."

On the Other Side of the Coin . . .

On the flip side, there has been support for the partnership across the Internet. For example, BlogHer, the largest community of women bloggers, has enthusiastically endorsed the campaign. They have joined up with KFC and asked 8 bloggers to share how breast cancer has affected their lives. For every comment received on those posts, BlogHer will donate $1 to Komen.

Many people commenting on blogs, forums, and news articles point out that people who eat at KFC now will continue to do so, and that the campaign is not likely to entice newcomers. "People aren't suddenly going to flood the doors of KFC because they're supporting breast cancer," said one comment.

Another person noted that people aren't going to visit KFC to buy a pink bucket, but that "they are going there because they like fried chicken. They are going to spend that money anyway, so some of it might as well go to a good cause."

Washington Post blogger Jennifer LaRue Huget had her own take on the issue. In an April 23 post, she noted that she did not think that "buying fried chicken by the bucket is a good way to fight breast cancer." Instead, she gave readers another idea. "A 10-piece bucket of KFC fried chicken (including the sides) costs about $20," she writes. "If you're really interested in supporting Komen for the Cure's efforts, why not just mail them a check directly?"

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