PINK RIBBONS, INC. – The Review
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