Should you rethink buying pink?

Last Updated Oct 20, 2014 11:37 AM EDT

Every October seems to bring more pink: pink-ribbon bath salts, pink "hard" lemonade, even a dog t-shirt emblazoned with a pink ribbon.

The products are all tied to this month's designation as breast-cancer awareness month, one of the most successful examples of cause-related marketing, or when a for-profit and a nonprofit work together to raise money.

These partnerships have proven to be extraordinary hits, with consumers opening up their wallets to shell out tens of millions each year on products adorned in pink, believing their purchase will go to support a charity. But whether those purchases actually help promote breast-cancer charities is sometimes murky.

"Charities don't have to disclose that specifically, and the corporations don't have to disclose it either, so there's not a good repository of information" regarding how much money is raised through pink-ribbon products, notes Sandra Miniutti, chief financial officer of Charity Navigator, an organization that rates charities. "In terms of breast cancer charities, there are literally thousands of them, and within the charity sector, breast cancer is a competitive space."

That has led to an explosion of pink-ribbon branded products over the past decade, she notes. With that has come a wide variety of unclear labeling. Some products say they "promote women's health" without any details about how the purchase will specifically provide money to a charity. Other products cap donations, such as a Reebok line of pink-ribbon footwear in 2010 that limited total donations to $750,000.

Watchdogs and breast cancer charities alike say it's increasingly important for consumers to be aware of what they're buying and to investigate how that purchase will benefit a charity, or if it will help it all.

Susan G. Komen, probably the breast cancer charity best known to consumers, says it urges consumers to ask five questions before they make a purchase, including whether buying a pink-ribbon product will benefit a reputable nonprofit or fund.

"Consumers should know if a company is committed," Carrie Glasscock, director of corporate relations for Komen, told CBS MoneyWatch. "There are some organizations that don't require the transparency that we do" with Komen's partners.

For Komen, October is its most important month for fundraising, although Glasscock notes that many cause-related marketing efforts are now year-round, such as its 20-year partnership with Ford ( F). That venture has brought in $20 million in funds over that span. Each year, corporate partnerships help raise $30 million for Komen, Glasscock noted.

"We often hear the criticism that there's too much, but as long as a woman is dying of breast cancer every 60 seconds, there's not enough pink," Glasscock added.

Still, the desire to reap corporate profits from a serious illness has led to a free-for-all, where pink ribbons are slapped on everything from handguns to alcohol, according to Karuna Jaggar, the executive director of Breast Cancer Action, a grassroots activist and watchdog group. Its "Think Before You Pink" campaign, which cites the Reebok example above, urges consumers to take a critical look at this month's flood of pink-ribbon products.

Because there's no tracking system or legal requirements when it comes to cause-related marketing, "anybody can put a pink ribbon on anything," Jaggar said. "We can safely say there are billions raised and spent in the name of breast cancer research." But, she added, there's no way to know how much is delivered to corporate coffers and how much goes to real research.

At the heart of it is a corporation's desire to strengthen the bottom line and foster consumer loyalty, she said. "Companies will sell more of those products if they have a pink ribbon," Jaggar noted. "In the long term, the public associates them with a feel-good cause."

That's something corporations won't dispute. Partnering with Komen has helped Ford over the past two decades by boosting boost its image and its sales, said Tracy Magee, who leads Ford's Warriors in Pink effort with Komen.

"We have research that shows people have a favorable opinion of Warriors in Pink, and know it's a Ford initiative, and therefore have a more favorable opinion of Ford overall," Magee said.

Getting that boost to a brand's reputation and sales "is the beauty of cause marketing," she added. "We want to do good while still bringing awareness about Ford and our vehicle lines. It's a good balance, and it's very clear that it's not just a marketing ploy."

Making sure consumers understand how a pink-ribbon purchase helps a charity is important, she said, noting that Ford gives 100 percent of net proceeds from its Warriors in Pink apparel and gear to a charity partner of the purchaser's choosing, with those charities including Komen.

While some consumers might be put off by some of the unclear messaging on pink-ribbon products, charity executives say the partnerships overall are essential for funding research into new treatments for breast cancer as well as helping women and men suffering from the disease.

Cause-related partnerships create a year-round stream of funding that otherwise might be hard to achieve, said Christina Rose, the chief partnerships officer at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which was founded in 1993 by the late Evelyn Lauder, part of the family who founded cosmetics maker Estée Lauder ( EL).

"If we ask a company for a check, we'll get a one-time check," Rose said. "Cause-marketing programs create a sustainable source of revenue, and that makes a bigger difference."

Aside from the money raised for breast-cancer charities, the pink-ribbon products have also destigmatized the disease, Rose noted. "Our founder, Evelyn Lauder realized in 1993 it wasn't something people were talking about," she said. "It's hard to imagine now, but it was something that was almost taboo."

While that's true, some critics feel the pink ribbon may have gone too far by putting a cheerful brand icon to a serious illness. Others see it as a way for corporations to profit from the suffering of cancer victims and their friends and families.

"Cause marketing works for the bottom line, but it doesn't work for the disease," said Breast Cancer Action's Jaggar. "There's a growing call for growing accountability in fundraising, and to challenge the cheerful pink narrative. Many women feel their disease is exploited and their experiences are diminished and obscured by the pink ribbon."