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Pink power: Breast-cancer awareness ribbon is heavy on the awareness

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - The power of pink is undeniable. And unavoidable.

Pink, the official colour of the breast-cancer awareness movement, is everywhere: On Andy Boy lettuce packages, Everlast boxing gloves, QVC's glittery ballet flats from Nine West, Bank of America credit cards and beauty products galore. The combined efforts raise millions of dollars each October for research, awareness and patient care.

But how did one little pink ribbon become so ubiquitous and so instantly recognizable? With all the worthy causes out there, how did breast cancer end up as the favourite child of the fashion and beauty industry? And why does it resonate so deeply with consumers?

It was Evelyn Lauder and Self magazine's Alexandra Penney who launched the pink ribbon campaign in 1992, offering the ribbons as subtle reminders to women who stopped at cosmetics counters in department stores that they needed to schedule breast exams.

At the time, the pink ribbon was so little known that some people thought it symbolized AIDS awareness. "There had been no publicity about breast cancer, but a confluence of events — the pink ribbon, the colour, the press, partnering with Elizabeth Hurley, having Estee Lauder as an advertiser in so magazines and persuading so many of my friends who are health and beauty editors to do stories about breast health — got people talking," says Evelyn Lauder, senior corporate vice-president of The Estee Lauder Companies and founder of the Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign.

Lauder, the daughter-in-law of the late Estee Lauder, who founded the brand, recalls a bellwether moment in the evolution of the cause. At first, she had to explain her own pink pin everywhere she went. Then, three years after distributing the first one, a flight attendant noted it on Lauder's lapel and said, "I know that's for breast cancer."

"From there, it became ubiquitous," she says.

Since the efforts began, $330 million has been raised in Breast Cancer Research Foundation donations-turned-research grants, including $50 million from Estee Lauder products, employees and retail partners. Other breast-cancer initiatives rooted in the fashion and beauty industries include the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Avon Foundation for Women Breast Cancer Crusade and Fashion Targets Breast Cancer from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Bloomingdale's is a prominent Breast Cancer Awareness partner with pink products, pink bags, and pink rebate cards and gift cards. Last year, it raised $1.3 million, giving out four $250,000 research grants with the rest distributed to 16 local organizations.

Countless requests for charity partnerships cross her desk in any given week, says Anne Keating, senior vice-president of public relations, events and corporate philanthropy. And at other times of the year, Bloomingdale's turns its attention to Child Mind Institute and the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance, among others.

But charities associated with breast cancer offer opportunities for retailers to support efforts in communities where their stores are located.

"Everything is a good cause. It's the small grants in the communities that mean a lot," she says.

And breast cancer is a cause that many consumers can relate to. Even Ralph Lauren had a personal connection to the disease: He got involved in a breast-cancer project now known as The Pink Pony Campaign because a friend, the late fashion editor Nina Hyde, was diagnosed with it.

"I was moved to respond," Lauren wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "As a tribute to her and to our friendship, I helped establish the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research at Georgetown University. Breast cancer is not just a women's issue — it affects all of us: the brothers, husbands, fathers, children and friends."

That led to his broader support of cancer causes including The Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention in Harlem.

Another aspect, says Debbie Sardone, is the underlying hopeful message in the pink campaign. "There's a little of an endorphin spike when you think of a cause that's helping people and hits close to home," says Sardone, of Lewisville, Texas, the founder and president of Cleaning For a Reason, a non-profit that offers free house cleaning to women undergoing cancer treatment.

The simplicity and ubiquity of the pink ribbon is appealing too. "Other causes need some explanation. When you see the pink ribbon, you get it," Sardone said.

But some consumers are a tad wary of the pink campaign. Judy Kooistra, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and is in her third round of chemotherapy for a recurrence, says she has "very mixed feelings about all this. The awareness — I'm not going to say that's a bad thing. Breast cancer awareness is a good thing, but a lot of the products out there are only 'pinking' it up."

Kooistra of Canton, Ohio, will buy some pink things, but only after knowing how much — exactly — is being donated and which charity it's going to. "It's huge marketing for companies and sometimes a huge profit for companies, and that's where I have the problem."

She adds, "I want people to be aware of it, I want people to know it's serious, but I don't want to be belittled or to be seen as a 'sexy' cancer."

Lauder, meanwhile, is proud of the success of her cause and its symbol.

"The pink ribbon," she says, "is an example of how one thing can become symbolic to a cause."