It's October, Breast Cancer Awareness month, which means it's time to shop for a cure - to buy corkscrews and bras and candy and dozens of other products that have been adorned with a pink ribbon - in the name of ending breast cancer.
Some companies, such as Coach - which is selling a special-edition watch - donate money to breast cancer charities for each pink ribbon product sold.
Others such as Folgers, which is stocking grocery store shelves with coffee in a pink can this month, use their products to raise awareness instead of donating proceeds. The company has pledged $250,000 this month to breast cancer.
"It's a wonderful thing because it's making everybody aware," says Joan DeMan, 57, who over the years has bought pink ribbon golf balls, sneakers and an umbrella. She bought pink ribbon bracelets for her mother - a 7-year breast cancer survivor - and her girlfriends. The other night she bought pink ribbon potato chip bag clips.
But as pink ribbon products continue to pop up - last month American Airlines unveiled its eighth pink ribbon plane while pledging to donate $7.5 million to Susan G. Komen for the Cure - how do you know what to buy?
And does buying pink really do that much good?
No clear tally
No one knows how many pink products are out there because there is no central clearinghouse that keeps track.
Likewise, no one keeps track of the total amount raised; so many products benefit so many different charities.
But Komen, the world's largest breast cancer group, received about $58 million last year from sponsorship deals and cause-related marketing.
That's when a company or brand links itself to a specific cause, in this case, breast cancer, according to Caroline Wall, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
In 1996, cause-related marketing and corporate sponsorships accounted for just $8 million, Wall says.
For many shoppers, buying pink products is a natural.
"They're not asking anyone to do anything extraordinary, not asking anyone to do anything other than make a purchase," Ed Nakfoor, a Birmingham, Mich.-based retail consultant, says of companies that sell pink products.
"So if someone is going to buy a box of M&Ms and they have a choice between a regular box of M&Ms and the pink box, they'll buy the pink box. It doesn't taste different ... but they can feel they're doing some good. It's an easy way for people to feel like they're making a difference."
Plus, women are responsible for making most household purchases - and are likely to have a natural empathy for and fear of breast cancer, which strikes women more than men, says Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C.-based consumer research firm.
Yet at the same time, women are becoming skeptical of pink products, according to a survey done earlier this year by the research group.
Four years ago, roughly 40 percent of the women surveyed said they make an effort to buy pink ribbon products.
In May, only 28 percent of the women surveyed said the same thing.
"They really question how much money breast cancer is getting. Other women who donate to breast cancer say, 'I'd rather give $25 or $50 where I know that's going rather than buying something where I don't know how much is going where,"' Beemer says. "Some of the bloom is off the pink rose."
Genevieve Howe, 50, lost her mother to breast cancer 12 years ago and says consumers need to look at pink products with a critical eye.
As a member of Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based group, she is an advocate for the organization's Think Before You Pink Campaign (thinkbeforeyoupink.org), which urges more transparency and accountability by companies taking part in breast cancer fund-raising. It also urges consumers to question promotions.
"They talk about spending money on breast cancer, there's so many different things that can mean. ... Are they looking into treatments? Are they looking into radiation or chemotherapy or surgery? What kind of research is funded? ... I want to challenge these companies and I want them to do the right thing, but I also want consumers to think critically," Howe said.
Both Komen and Think Before You Pink encourage shoppers to be savvy.
Do research; go online or call a company directly. You can usually find phone numbers and Web site addresses on the product.
l Who the program benefits and whether it supports a reputable organization. (One place to check the status of charitable organizations is www.charitynavigator.com. Another place is the Better Business Bureau's www.give.org.)
l How much of your purchase is going to battle breast cancer? Most packages say how much will be donated, but not all do.
l Is there a cap on what the maker of the product will donate to breast cancer? Red Envelope, the gift magazine and e-commerce site www.redenvelope.com, is donating 10 percent from the sales of its pink ribbon products but says that it won't donate more than $10,000, for example.
l What will the charity do with the money it receives?
l Would you make more of a difference writing a check to a breast cancer organization?
Only then can you decide if a pink product is a good buy.