By  |  6 Comments

The new documentary PINK RIBBONS, INC is a well-produced but shrill attempt to shed light on the omnipresent pink ribbons of breast cancer philanthropy and the marketing of brands and products associated with it. The pink ribbons symbolizing the breast cancer permeate our culture, providing a colorful pink reminder that so many are engaged in a battle against the disease. But the makers of PINK RIBBONS, INC feel that the pink crusade obscures the more serious facts of breast cancer: more and more women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, yet face treatment options not much different than those offered 40 years ago. Women are the most influential marketing group, buying most consumer products and making most major household purchasing decisions. So then who really benefits from the pink ribbon campaigns – the cause or the company? As PINK RIBBONS, INC points out, the pink ribbon crusade began over 20 years ago when cancer victim Charlotte Haley began handing out peach-colored ribbons on cards that read: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion; only 5 per cent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon”. In 1992 the cosmetics firm Estee Lauder wanted to start a breast cancer awareness campaign and distribute Ms Haley’s ribbons but she told them she had no desire to see her idea used as part of a commercial effort. Estee Lauder simply switched the ribbon color to pink and the Pink Ribbon campaign was born.

Barbara Brenner, head of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action, is the dominant talking head in PINK RIBBONS INC, and I assume a like-minded surrogate for the film’s Canadian director Lea Pool. The perpetually offended Ms Brenner announces early in the film “If people knew what was happening, they’d be pissed off”. I saw nothing in PINK RIBBONS INC. that pissed me off though the film sure tried hard to get me stirred up. In the films best, and most emotional scenes, Pool visits a group of women who are living with Stage 4 cancer. They speak at length about how difficult it is to find support in a movement that’s all about being upbeat and strong enough to beat cancer. These are women at the end of the line with no hope of surviving (there is no Stage 5) and these scenes are sad and moving. These women hate the militaristic metaphors associated with the pink movement. They feel the term “cancer survivor” is a putdown of women who don’t survive and are angry at slogans like “live strong” that they feel puts pressure on breast cancer victims to be “upbeat and smile”. Ms Brenner calls it a “tyranny of cheerfulness”.

PINK RIBBONS INC shows women living under this “tyranny of cheerfulness”, that the film takes such issue with. Thousands of women (and some men) are shown attending outdoors walks and high-energy gatherings, seas of pink-adorned solidarity. They may seem like sports or political rallies with their cheerleading, music, and signs, but they also appear to be uplifting, positive, bonding experiences for the many in attendance (64,000 attended the Komen St. Louis Race for the Cure last year alone and over $3 Million was raised). There is “Row for the Cure”, “Jump (skydive) for the Cure”, “Jump (horses) for Hope”, all of which generate millions for the cause. The footage of these gatherings is juxtaposed with testimonials meant to raise alarms about all of this goodwill. The film keeps cutting back to the stern Ms Brenner, who speaks bitterly of how seeing an ad for a pink teddy bear “offended my sense of dignity”. Yikes! All the Debbie Downerism seems unnecessary. Shouldn’t these women all be on the same team? Can there really be “too much” pink? Who responds to such a negative message like the one Ms Brenner (who doesn’t like things that are “pretty and feminine” and is from San Francisco) is peddling?

PINK RIBBONS INC seems to have sharp knives pointed at the Susan G. Komen Foundation. A fund-raising giant, Komen has added over $1.5 billion to the cause in the last two decades, becoming the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight against breast cancer in the world, yet PINK RIBBONS INC seems determined to portray Komen in a bad light. The film exposes corporations that deliberately exploit pink for their own selfish gain, hopping on the “cure breast cancer!” bandwagon as a marketing tool to enhance their image. These companies “pinkwash” their sales for a wide range of products, yet end up donating very little to cancer research. This is cause for concern but after making this point, the film cuts back to Komen, yet Komen carefully vets any corporation it partners with to avoid that type of association. There are charities and non-profits that end up donating a surprisingly small percentage of their take to the cause but according to a breakdown of Komen’s 2010 Annual report, 12 percent of the money goes for administration and the rest to cancer screening, treatment, research, and education, a healthy percentage. Komen partnered with Kentucky Fried Chicken in 2010 on a “pink bucket” campaign where every bucket of tasty KFC purchased yielded a 50 cent donation to breast cancer charity. A group of vigilant buzzkills and busybody nutrition bloggers went nuts. Under the guise of “Breast Cancer Action”, they started a successful petition and write-in campaign to get the promotion stopped because……KFC is unhealthy (!) Well, no kidding! The mortified Ms Brenner shrieks “the disconnect is shocking”, but is it really? KFC has been around a long time, their chicken is super-yummy, and I think people know exactly what they’re getting into healthwise when they purchase a bucket. Not only that, KFC timed this collaboration with Komen to roll out some new grilled product and healthier menu choices, yet these activists seem to consider it a great moral victory that breast cancer causes will no longer benefit financially from the millions of buckets of chicken KFC is going to sell regardless (and God forbid placing the responsibility for a crisis in diet on the consumer…..mmmmmm, KFC!).

PINK RIBBONS INC is big on complaints, but short on ideas. If the pink ribbon is the wrong message, then what is the right one? The film points at core environmental causes of the disease, and because a woman’s chance of getting cancer is twice as likely as it was 70 years ago, I’m sure they have a point. Yet their unspoken goal of increased government regulation can be achieved through exerting influence on the FDA and the EPA, and though it’s never mentioned, I’m sure that breast cancer advocates have a strong lobbying group. I understand that agenda-driven documentaries such as this one are meant to generate debate about social and political issues, and PINK RIBBONS INC is well made, but it spends way too much time with Ms Brenner’s rebuttal of all the positive energy swirling around her and  sends mixed signals about an important subject.

2 1/2 of 5 Stars

PINK RIBBONS INC. opens in St. Louis July 20th at Landmark’s Tivoli Theater


  1. Erika Carlson

    May 31, 2012 at 9:47 am

    I take issue with your comment that “there cannot be too much pink” . I am a breast cancer survivor of 3 years, and tons of the pink says that it is for a cure, yet it is really funding “awareness”. I mean really, does anyone live under a rock and not know about breast cancer? But what people know about is the curable, stage one type, like I luckily had, and not the harder realities of stage 3 as my mom is now battling.

    You seem to criticize ms. Brenners negative attitude, but all the very sexualized talk about breasts(the feel your boobies campaign is one, not run by Komen but equally annoying), is quite intense. Companies are interested in sponsoring breast cancer issues because it has to do with breasts, and “saving them” but most of us end up with disfiguring surgery, and no one wants to talk about that! Where’s the campaign for colon cancer, a quite prevalent cancer!

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but will when it comes to Denver, but the questions they ask are valuable, even if there aren’t any answers yet. Komen is the elephant in the breast cancer room, and should be looked at critically!

  2. Musa Mayer

    May 31, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Would this reviewer describe a film made by males as “shrill” or disparage serious challenges as “Debbie Downerism” if a man proposed them? Was he not paying attention over the past year to the serious questions raised by Komen’s politically motivated withdrawal of support from Planned Parenthood? Or by the organization’s corporate legal action against numerous small charitable organizations over the use of their copyright “For the Cure”?

    Over the past 23 years since my own breast cancer diagnosis, I have seen breast cancer become established as the number one cause-marketed charity. Many of us who work as advocates on behalf of women with metastatic breast cancer, who will not survive the disease, understand all too well the points this film makes about relentlessly cheerful cause marketing that emphasizes hope and survivorship at the expense of the 30% of patients who will go on to die of the disease.

    Fortunately, we have choices about which organizations to support. The National Breast Cancer Coalition has been a champion of quality care for all women, and has raised, through the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program well over 2 billion dollars for innovative research. After 20 years, we are tired of marketing, pink ribbons and “awareness.” It is time to ACT! NBCC has established a 2020 Deadline for the end of breast cancer. Learn more about it here:

    Are you with us?

    • Tom Stockman

      May 31, 2012 at 12:10 pm

      I have no idea if I’d describe a film made by men in those terms. Depends on the tone of the film. Withdrawing support for PP was the smartest thing Komen did (or attempted to do).

  3. Pingback: Film Review: Pink Ribbons, Inc. – Film Journal « Pharmacy and Drug Store News | DrugStoreSource

  4. Pingback: ‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.,’ a Documentary About Breast Cancer – New York Times « Pharmacy and Drug Store News | DrugStoreSource

  5. Sandy Kugelman

    June 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    This is a tough issue. I was one of the Stage IV women featured in the film (wearing the blue t-shirt and pearls :). I hear your frustration with the fact that there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution at all. If only there was. I personally raised thousands of dollars for Komen and assumed that “Race for the Cure” meant that a good portion of the money was going toward a cure. As you mentioned, there is no Stage V, and yet only a tiny fraction of money goes to research that may help women with later stages of the disease. And even more incredibly, one of the most disturbing facts that the film brought to light for me was that there is no coordination of the research. The person in the lab in San Francisco and the person in the lab in Sweden may be using money on the same exact research with no knowledge of what the other is doing. Additionally, minimal funding is put into the causes of breast cancer. One thing is evident: with the amount raised, we should be so much closer to answers.

    The director Lea Pool was very clear that what she didn’t want to do was to disrespect all the people who so generously believe that they are helping and if you notice, the film quite delicately manages to hold them (us) with care. To me, the purpose of the film was to change the conversation and really think about what we are doing here. If we can think clearly and map out a plan, we can use all this wonderful energy that so many are putting forth with efficiency. Only then can we can finally make significant progress toward saving lives. That’s what we all want.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>