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'Pink Ribbons, Inc.' Follows the Money in Breast Cancer Awareness Campaigns

Participants at the 2010 Revlon Walk/Run for Women, New York City. Photo credit: Lea Pool

Barbara Ehrenreich's outrage at the cause marketing of Pink Ribbons is palpable in Léa Pool's documentary. And she's not alone.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Director: Léa Pool
Cast: Barbara Ehrenreich, Samantha King, Barbara Brenner, Judy Brady, Susan Love, Nancy Brinker
Rated: NR
Studio: First Run Features
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-06-06 (Limited release)

"What is it with these pink ribbons and everything?" When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich's initial response was to do her own research. As she recalls in the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc., she assumed at first that she would study breast cancer, dig into the years of science and treatments and medical findings. But almost as soon as she started, she was distracted by something overwhelming, namely, the culture of breast cancer. As she confronted the "community" and campaigns that have developed around breast cancer, she says, "I became more of an anthropologist."

The result, for Ehrenreich, was an article for the November 2001 issue of Harper's Magazine, "Welcome to Cancerland," a piece in which she describes waiting in the doctor's office where she's getting her mammogram, desperate for something to read and resorting to a local weekly. Here, she recalls in the essay and again in the film, she found a classified advertisement for a pink "breast cancer teddy bear." "I can't tell you how much this offended my sense of dignity," she says. "Here I was facing the most serious health crisis of my life, facing my own mortality, and somebody's offering me a pink teddy bear?"

Ehrenreich's outrage is palpable in Léa Pool's documentary. And she's not alone. Pink Ribbons, Inc. offers a series of interviews with women who are offended by the ways that breast cancer has become what activist Barbara Brenner calls the "poster child for cause marketing." The reasons are obvious, if you think about it, explains Brenner. Marketing to women -- however hopelessly unspecific and incorrect that notion may be -- makes sense, as they make most of the purchasing decisions in the current version of Western capitalism, and, Brenner adds, "We get to say 'breast' on public television."

With this observation -- partly cynical and wholly acute -- Brenner distills the argument of Pink Ribbons, Inc.. The pink ribbons campaign, best known by its association with Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, an organization that annually raises millions of dollars. The documentary uses a conventional structure -- talking heads, illustrative footage, and snappy graphics -- to consider a number of questions concerning Komen, among them, how is such money is solicited, donated, and spent.

Samantha King -- who wrote the 2006 book Pink Ribbons, Inc., that inspired Pool's film -- points out that the "movement," so called, has been coopted by corporations who provide funding in exchange for PR. This means shaping the campaign to suit those paying for it. "You have to sell the disease in a particular way," she says, "or alienate clients or corporate sponsors."

As Brennan suggests, this is a decided change from previous "movements," here fondly remembered as expressions of anger and demands for action. The film submits that putting "a pretty pink face" on breast cancer doesn’t actually help women with the disease. Some of them are assembled here, to express their upset at being instructed to "prevent" cancer. This is a problematic premise, in a couple of ways. One, it's not clear what causes breast cancer (a disease that most often strikes women), so advice to eat well and exercise might be generally fine but hardly a preventative method for cancer. Worse, such instruction underscores the campaign's focus on middle class white women -- who make up most of the research pools, again and again, as well as target markets. (The result of such tightly focused marketing has daily real world effects; Janet Collins points out, "Poor women can't walk into a supermarket and buy lean meat.")

And two, the campaign creates a culture of moral value associated with "success." If you fight the battle, you win. And if you lose, well, you didn’t' fight hard "enough," laments one woman who had cancer. The movie assembles several cancer patients to describe their stories and some of them, like Ehrenreich, dislike being called "survivors," for precisely the faux "fighting" it presumes. The patients describe their pain, fear, and confusion, the ways that treatments fall short, and especially the ways that Pink Ribbon campaigns don't help.

In part, this is because Pink Ribbons is a distraction, a means to "drain and deflect the kind of militancy we had, as women who were appalled to have a disease that was epidemic and yet, that we don't even know the cause of," Ehrenreich says. Instead, Pink Ribbons provides photo opportunities, otherwise known as mass races, walks and jumps from planes "for the cure."

It also provides any number of ways to make money -- for the companies -- by selling pink things, from teddy bears, jewelry, and Yoplait yogurt, to Vespas and Ford Mustangs. Some companies pledge to donate money based on consumers' purchases: Brenner cites a 2002 campaign by American Express that used the slogan "Every dollar counts," but only paid one cent on every thousand dollars spent by a cardholder. Doing the math reveals how little money the company actually donated: "We exposed that campaign," she says, "And they stopped it."

More insidiously, Pink Ribbons sets up sales for cosmetics or food companies whose products include known carcinogens. The film recalls the KFC campaign -- lots of pink buckets and pink outfits in the commercials, set to lyrics proclaiming "It's a beautiful world."

It may be surprising that Komen's founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker -- now notorious for a decision to withdraw and then reestablish Komen's support for Planned Parenthood -- appears in the film, but she makes her best effort. This even if, in trying to explain the affiliation with KFC, she's not precisely reassuring. "In this case, the restaurant company came to us and asked us to do a program where they were introducing a grilled product, where we felt that was a very good thing because the fact is, again, training people how to eat right and doing those sorts of educational programs don’t happen overnight." It’s this sort of double-speak that makes you skeptical of cause marketing.


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