She hand-made the ribbons at home in Simi Valley, California, and attached them to cards which she handed out in local supermarkets or sent by mail to prominent women.
During October, a month traditionally devoted to raising awareness of breast cancer, the iconic pink ribbon logo seems to be everywhere. It’s so discreet that it could almost go unnoticed as a piece of design – and yet that’s exactly what it is.
By the time it appeared, red ribbons had already been adopted as symbols – first by an organisation called Mothers Against Drink Driving, in 1986 (“Tie One On For Safety”). And then, of course, by AIDS awareness organisations, notably the Visual AIDS Artists Caucus.
But what about the pink ribbon? It has its origins in a peach-coloured ribbon pioneered by cancer survivor and activist Charlotte Haley in 1991. She hand-made the ribbons at home in Simi Valley, California, and attached them to cards which she handed out in local supermarkets or sent by mail to prominent women.
Her cards came with a line of copy that read: “The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”
As news of the ribbon spread, the idea inspired Alexandra Penney, then editor of Self magazine. Penney wanted to join forces with Evelyn H. Lauder – of the Estée Lauder beauty brand – to promote the ribbons more widely for its 1992 National Breast Cancer Awareness issue. The ribbons would also be distributed via Lauder’s beauty counters.
However, Haley felt that the campaign was too commercial and refused to cooperate. Undaunted, so the story goes, Penney and Lauder launched their own pink interpretation of the ribbon. Thanks in part to Lauder’s high profile it gradually supplanted the peach version as a symbol of breast cancer awareness.
Haley never gave up her activism and died in 2014 at the age of 91. Meanwhile, the pink ribbon had evolved into brooches and found its way onto numerous Estée Lauder products, not to mention those of brands it owns like Bobbi Brown and DKNY. But this is not “pink washing”. Lauder founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and by last year, the campaign’s 25th anniversary, Estée Lauder Companies had raised US$70 million to fund education, care and medical research grants.
A recent version of the Estée Lauder brooch features two stones: one pink, and one blue, as a reminder of the fact that breast cancer can also affect men (one in one thousand).
So who owns the intellectual copyright to the ribbon design? Nobody. The ribbon is in the public domain, which is just as it should be.
By Mark Tungate, editorial director