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Cancer Walk Competitors Busy In Wake Of Komen Debacle

By Patrick Sullivan - March 15, 2012

In what could be considered an incredible coincidence, during the first three weeks of February the Avon Foundation for Wom­en aired 6,000 commercials promoting its breast cancer awareness and research walks that start in April, including the one in New York City, which isn’t until October.

Zero is the number of ads the organization ran last year during the same period. The American Cancer Society (ACS) ran 1,575 spots during the period, compared to 233 the previous year.

And in what could be considered an incredible twist of fate, the ads hit as nearly every social network on the Internet was chattering about the problems at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the largest breast cancer walk event organization in the world. Komen has been under fire for pulling funding from Planned Parenthood claiming the organization was under investigation but then reversed the decision when it became public that the reason for the withdrawal was family planning and a change in Komen’s funding policy.

Komen was busy, too, running almost 10,000 radio and television ads during the first three weeks of February.

“There is what I call a ‘gas war’ mentality,” said Dwight Douglas of Media Monitors in White Plains, N.Y. “When two like companies are battling for a position, they tend to react with repositioning statements. Like in politics, companies try to exploit a negative or perceived negative at the other company.” Media Monitors performed the research for this story at the request of The NonProfit Times.

“This year we made a strategic decision to increase the amount of national ex­posure in support of the American Cancer Society Relay For Life and the lifesaving work it helps power,” said Andy Goldsmith, vice president for creative and brand strategy at ACS.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure was founded in 1982, and held its first race in 1983. Since then, the organization has raised $1.9 billion via the races but has corporate marketing ventures that have been worth billions of dollars. Though the Avon Foundation for Women has been in existence since 1955, it has only been holding races since 2003. Races have raised $423 million, and the Avon Foundation has contributed $740 million for breast cancer in total.

Douglas said response to a crisis is usually to pull ads, not increase their number, like BP did following its 2010 Deepwater Horizon malfunction and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. During the week of April 20 through 26, the week of the disaster, BP ran upward of 4,700 ads on television and radio. The following week, it ran just 22. Advertising campaigns are usually laid out months in advance and last-minute advertising spots are costly, said Douglas. And with the 2012 Republican primary season in full swing, spots are scarce in certain markets.

An Avon spokesperson said the organization had planned the spots for months. “We always develop our marketing strategy right after the first Avon Walk of the season,” said Karyn Margolis, senior manager of public relations and communications for the Avon Foundation for Women, in New York City. “We tried a few new approaches in 2011 and part of the strategy was to change our 2012 media schedule, which is why we didn’t have any ads in early February last year.” That does not mean the Avon Foundation isn’t trying to capitalize on Komen’s media missteps. “I think it would be unseemly of (Komen’s competitors) to be publicly kicking Komen when it’s down, but I’m sure that they’re aware there may be some opportunities in the future for them to talk to more people about the breast cancer cause in corporate America,” said David Hessekiel, founder of the Cause Marketing Forum in Rye, N.Y.

Hessekiel said that many of Komen’s sponsorship deals are for multiple years, so the Planned Parenthood debacle is unlikely to have an immediate effect on corporate sponsorship. A recent Huffington Post article quoted some of Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s nearly 200 sponsors, and most respondents expressed cautious support.

Komen representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

While both organizations support breast cancer education and research, there are some striking differences between the two. Avon Walk for Breast Cancer has only nine dates in nine U.S. cities, while Komen runs more than 140 races in 50 countries. The length of the races is dissimilar, as well. Participants in Avon’s events can choose to walk either 26.2 miles or 39.1 miles, spread over two days.

In contrast, the majority of Komen’s races are five kilometers, though the organization also holds its Marathon for the Cure and the 60-mile Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure.

Unfortunately for the Avon Foundation, it might suffer just as much as Ko­men for the Cure for the latter’s negative publicity, and perhaps even more so. While Komen runs 14 3-Day for the Cure events, each of which requires participants to raise $2,300, it also holds numerous 5K races that are far less cost-intensive to the runners. All of Avon’s Walks for Breast Cancer, however, require a similar contribution as the 3-Day for the Cure events: $1,800 is a lot of money for most people even in the best of times, but especially in this flagging economy.

Though he would not comment directly on the Avon Foundation’s possible motivations for stepping up its February advertising, Hessekiel said it could be a natural outgrowth of the Komen versus Planned Parenthood controversy. “The recent controversy has enflamed people on both sides of the abortion issue,” he said. “Anyone running events that require a major commitment would be wise to be redoubling their marketing efforts. There’s a lot of pink ribbon breast cancer confusion, so I’m sure that other groups are doing their best to make it clear who’s connected to whom.”

The Avon Foundation and other Komen competitors must deal with a confused public that might not be aware of the many organizations that support the fight against breast cancer. The Avon Foundation released a document on Feb. 3 that denies any affiliation with Susan G. Komen. It also added a line in its online FAQ under the very first question that it is not affiliated in any way with Susan G. Komen, and according to Margolis, has fielded numerous calls about connections with Komen. Other breast cancer charities, such as Breast Cancer Action, have made similar statements, or have trumpeted their support of Planned Parenthood or denounced Komen’s decision to sever ties with the organization.

“I have heard anecdotally that there’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace about who was involved with this controversy, so it could be having a spillover effect to other breast cancer events,” said Hessekiel. “Time will tell whether it will have a long-term effect.”

As far as how breast cancer charities might combat the negative publicity of the Komen announcement, Hessekiel was guarded in offering advice. He stressed the difficulty Komen and others would face in the coming public relations battle.

“I think that doing positive things on other fronts that show that they embrace all people and that their cause has nothing to do with the issue of abortion would be wise,” said Hessekiel. “They’ve got to find some way to change the focus of the discussion.” NPT

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