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Marketing the cure

Pink Ribbons, Inc. challenges assumptions of fight against breast cancer



Not since Hell's Angel, Christopher Hitchens' takedown of Mother Theresa, has a documentary challenged such a beloved subject as Pink Ribbons, Inc. Director Léa Pool finds corporate exploitation and misguided idealism in the pink ribbon campaign against breast cancer, which initially looks like the most worthy and high-spirited cause imaginable.

Who'd want to say a discouraging word to the thousands of pink-clad women who mobilize against a horrific disease? Pink Ribbons, Inc. avoids directly criticizing the feisty and brave breast cancer survivors and their loved ones who turn out for fundraisers "for the cure." As Pink Ribbons, Inc. scrutinizes the methods and corporate partnerships behind the anti-breast cancer movement, Pool crosscuts to walkathon participants in San Francisco and other major cities, and the marchers increasingly seem to be on a road to nowhere.

Dr. Samantha King, who authored the film's source book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, serves as one of the film's forthright talking heads. In part, Pink Ribbons, Inc. takes on "cause marketing" by revealing how corporate sponsors like Avon and Estée Lauder improve their public image through philanthropic associations. The film celebrates the Environmental Working Group for calling out cosmetics companies for "pink-washing," i.e., supporting the campaign against breast cancer while marketing personal care products that contain potentially carcinogenic chemicals. Other companies trumpet their participation while donating pittances. Owlish Barbara A. Brenner of Breast Cancer Action, the film's most scathing interviewee, points to an American Express promotion that donated one cent per customer purchase to research.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. points out that Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the largest and best-funded breast cancer organization, has raised 1.9 billion over the years, but questions what the group has to show for it. The film's medical experts assert that cozy relationships between philanthropies and corporations can lead to ineffective health care research that emphasizes treatment over prevention. Pharmaceutical companies devote most of their energies to produce marketable products, while supporters like General Motors frown on research that targets the links between environmental pollutants and cancer.

The National Film Board of Canada produced Pink Ribbons, Inc. in 2011, before the controversy from earlier this year when Komen stopped funding Planned Parenthood then reversed the decision after four days of outcry. Pink Ribbons, Inc. emphasizes the group's corporate compromises over its idealistic ones, like its participation in a campaign with KFC, which Komen CEO Nancy Brinker weakly justifies given the fast food chain's introduction of a grilled product.

The film reveals that the pink ribbon itself has a checkered history. The film interviews activist Charlotte Haley, who established a peach-colored ribbon as a means to pressure the American Cancer Society to increase its research. In 1992, Haley refused to give Self magazine and Estée Lauder permission to co-opt the symbol for their campaign, so the companies simply introduced the pink ribbon after test-marketing the color.

The filmmakers also take on the "tyranny of cheerfulness" through a panel of patients with Level IV (incurable) breast cancer who feel marginalized by the movement's emphasis on positivity. Pink Ribbons, Inc. turns up some surprising archival material, including a black-and-white TV special with Alfred Hitchcock directing William Shatner as an oncologist.

At times, the strength of the emotions behind Pink Ribbons, Inc. seems greater than the strength of its argument. Given the level of uncertainty about the causes of breast cancer, the documentary lacks the evidence to blame its villains for lives lost due to misplaced research dollars. Nevertheless, the documentary provides a valuable service by encouraging audiences to question public images and consider whether their energies belong at places other than walkathons.

Related Film

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Official Site:

Director: Léa Pool

Writer: Patricia Kearns and Léa Pool

Producer: Ravida Din

Cast: Judy Brady, Barbara A. Brenner, Nancy G. Brinker, James Brophy, PhD, Janet Collins, Carol Cone, Dr. Charlene Elliott, Barbara Ehrenreich, Charlotte Haley and Jane Houlihan

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