As is true in communities nationwide, the lamp posts in downtown Aiken are adorned with light pink ribbons this month as a display of support for the fight against breast cancer during National Breast Cancer Awareness month.Similar ribbons - this time in yellow - are displayed around patriotic holidays, as well as year-round, as a way of showing support for troops who are serving or who have served in the United States military.Still other ribbons show up on the lapels and dresses of celebrities at award shows and on the bumpers of cars driving down the interstate.While awareness ribbons in various colors have become commonly associated with specific causes, the lack of regulation of ribbon colors means that one color can have as many as 20 or more causes associated with it, and its significance is largely left open for interpretation."There is no real ownership with colors of ribbons. It kind of leaves the market open and leaves people to adopt a color that they think fits with what they're doing and what they think they're going to get attention with," said Elissa McCrary, regional communications manager for the American Cancer Society.The idea of using ribbons as tools to raise awareness is traced back to the 1970s, when Penelope Laingen, a Maryland woman whose husband was held hostage during the Iran Hostage Crisis, tied a yellow ribbon around a tree outside her Bethesda home. She said that she took the idea from a song that she liked, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree," sung by Tony Orlando and Dawn and written by Irwin Levine and Larry Russell Brown.The song tells the story of a convict riding a bus home after being released from prison. He tells the driver that he has written to a woman asking her to tie a yellow ribbon to a tree if she will have him back when he returns. Opening his eyes when he arrives home, he realizes that the tree is covered in ribbons.Since then, other organizations, community groups and individuals have begun using ribbons to represent causes. Doing so is as simple as choosing a color and creating a ribbon, said Sarah Andrews, an employee at Personalized Cause, a web-based awareness ribbon merchant.While the yellow ribbon has remained primarily a symbol of support for the troops, it has also come to be used to raise awareness for suicide prevention, carbon monoxide poisoning, adoptive parenting, sarcoma/bone cancer and bladder cancer. It is also an awareness color for missing children and was even used in a "Boycott Aruba for Natalee Holloway" campaign, in support of the high school student who went missing on a 2005 trip to Aruba."This is an ongoing situation," said Andrews. "People come at us every day for causes. Whatever they decide to use, that's what we honor."The American Cancer Society uses different colored ribbons to represent various forms of cancer, though the pink ribbon for breast cancer and the purple ribbon for ACS' Relay For Life fundraiser are the most recognizable.The use of the pink ribbon was begun in 1991 by Evelyn Lauder of the Estee Lauder Corp. and Alexandra Penney of Self Magazine while putting together an issue of Self to recognize breast cancer awareness month. They heard about a peach ribbon used by a woman named Charlotte Haley in recognition of her daughter, grandmother and sister's diagnosis with breast cancer, and they wanted to use the peach ribbon in their magazine. Haley declined because she feared the ribbon would become commercialized, so the women chose the pink ribbon instead, according to ACS.Because one ribbon can be used to represent any number of causes, McCrary said, many organizations incorporate the ribbon color into a larger logo, which can be trademarked and remain unique. ACS does so through using the ribbon in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer logo.The red ribbon, which is most commonly associated with HIV/AIDS, is also used for alcohol and substance abuse awareness and a skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa. It is also often associated with stroke and heart disease, and red ribbons are sold and worn in recognition of it; however, the American Heart Association said that it does not use an awareness ribbon at all."We really don't use a red ribbon because that's for AIDS awareness," said Catherine Ramsey, director for communications and marketing at the American Heart Association.AHA has used a logo with a heart and torch since 1924 and, in 2003, began using a Go Red for Women red dress logo as one of several organizations collaborating to support women's health issues, but a ribbon has never been incorporated, Ramsey said.With the exception of causes that are hate-based, personalizedcause.com accepts any ribbon color for any cause, and no research is done to see if a cause is associated with another color, Andrews said. This results in some causes being represented by multiple colors, such as colon cancer, a disease linked to a dark blue ribbon by ACS and a brown ribbon by the Katie Couric Colon Cancer Foundation.Some ribbons incorporate patterns and are more unique, such as the puzzle piece patterned ribbon supporting Autism, the lace ribbon supporting osteoporosis and the rainbow ribbon supporting gay rights.Andrews said she believes that the non-verbal nature of using a ribbon is part of the reason they are used."You don't have to be out in the public announcing your cause. It could just be that you wear it, and people interpret it however they want to," she said.
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