Pink counterproductive to breast cancer awareness

Research into gender identity cues in breast cancer communications uncovers surprising new insights into women’s perceived vulnerability to the disease.

Leading international business schools London Business School; Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) and INSEAD have issued new research into women’s perceptions of breast cancer communications. Such communications often feature cues referring to a woman’s gender identity, such as pink backgrounds, pink ribbons, or simply other women. The study found that the presence of such gender cues can be inadvertently counterproductive to the key goals of breast cancer awareness campaigns.

Nader Tavassoli, Chaired Professor of Marketing at London Business School, Stefano Puntoni, Associate Professor of Marketing at RSM and Steven Sweldens, Assistant Professor of Marketing at INSEAD, conducted a series of experiments to determine the impact of women’s exposure to breast cancer communications in situations where their gender was either especially salient or not.

“Our findings run counter to the prevailing beliefs in the advertising industry,” said Professor Tavassoli “Breast cancer campaigns should avoid using gender cues such as images of a woman covering her breast as they are less effective when placed in media contexts that make women reflect on their own gender, like websites or on TV channels dedicated to more female themes. Communications boosting women’s sense of self-worth can help to overcome the defensive reactions and increase the effectiveness of breast cancer campaigns.”

“Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death and alerting women to their vulnerability will be critical for governments and charities around the world,” said Dr Sweldens. ‘”Our research shows that breast cancer communications that feature prominent gender cues activate a defensive “it cannot happen to me” reaction in women.”

Dr. Puntoni added: “These defensive mechanisms interfere with key objectives of breast cancer campaigns. For example, they lower women’s perceived vulnerability to breast cancer, reduce their donations to ovarian cancer research, make breast cancer advertisements more difficult to process, and decrease memory for breast cancer advertisements.”’

‘Gender Identity Salience and Perceived Vulnerability to Breast Cancer’ is featured in the June 2011 issue of the Journal of Marketing Research.