Writers: Nancy Guerin, Patricia Kearne, and Léa Pool
Director: Léa Pool
Cause marketing is an industry in itself, which an emphasis on marketing via a cause platform that exploits people’s natural desire to do good in a manner that inconveniences them as little as possible while playing on their sentiments. There are charities set up by everybody from celebrities to entrepreneurs, acting as middle-men to raise funds and distribute them to “worthy parties”. The truth is evident only when their account books get exposed: while there are some decent middle-man charity bodies out there, most of them spend more of the money that came in on “marketing”, “consultation fees”, and “campaigns” than on the actual cause itself. And then we have the board members of each bodies taking pays that rival the amount of Fortune 500 companies.
Pink Ribbons, Inc. zooms in on the most marketable cause at the moment: breast cancer. It aims right at Susan G Komen for the Cure, which started out as a body dedicated to raising funds for efforts to seek a cure for breast cancer, and today is well known for hilariously inappropriate cash-raising efforts such as partnering with Kentucky Fried Chicken and its incompetent support for the pro-life movement in the USA by trying to cut off its alliance with Planned Parenthood.
Inspired by the book Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy by Samantha King, this documentary features interviews with activists and authors as well as members of a Stage IV cancer support group, interspersed with scenes from “pink” events. For balance, there are also spoken bits from Nancy G Brinker, the ambassador for Komen, and some people from the companies that partnered with Komen, like Ford.
This documentary is a bit unsure of what it wants to be, and tries valiantly to cover several grounds only to show up its lack of focus. The messages it wants to say are clear and, in many ways, frighteningly true.
The premise of the “pink” activism is flawed from the start: there is an unhealthy focus on cure instead of prevention, when we aren’t even sure what really causes breast cancer. If we don’t know what is causing a problem, how do we find the cure? But the emphasis on the cure makes people feel good, and it also ties in with the interests of the pharmaceutical industry. As been brought up many times here, the emphasis on prevention would require drastic messages involving things like cleaning up our air, reducing the amount of chemicals added to our foods, et cetera – messages that would go counter to the interests of many of Komen’s cause partners. Like Ford, whose vehicles add to the amount of pollutants in the environment, or Avon whose cosmetic products contain ingredients linked to cancer, or Kentucky Fried Chicken, whose food products contribute to obesity, which increases one’s risk to cancer.
What Komen’s “pink” activities do is to allow its partners to make lots of money selling “pink”-ified products to people. It is pointed out here how some of the campaigns launched by Komen and a corporate partner actually contribute very little money for so much money – it is often easier and more effective to just write a check. The success of such activities stems from it allowing people to keep doing what they do – eating fried chicken or buying their favorite cosmetic products – only with the extra feel-good factor that they are somehow doing good by doing very little out of their usual routine. Everyone wants to feel like a hero.
And yet, the film doesn’t say this out loud by just shows the scenes from the runs and the festivities how inane and vapid these activities actually are. So much money is spent lighting up skyscrapers in pink… what does that actually do to further the cause? People coming for runs and then getting back the calories they’ve burned by eating “pink” ice-creams and yogurts. It’s all about folks thinking that they are doing something good, while the organizers just smile and rake in the profits. This is not said out loud as well, but the implication is there: organizations like Komen need people to remain ignorant or uncritical of their operations, so that they could continue doing what they do every year, making money in the name of noble intentions.
There are also interviews with women with breast cancer, who express their dismay at how the constant emphasis on feel-good messages propagate the wrong messages about the disease – that, if you think positive thoughts and “fight hard enough”, you can beat cancer. This means that people who do die of cancer clearly weren’t positive or cheerful enough. The “pink” campaigns also cause breast cancer to made pretty and even sexy, sweeping away the grim realities of the condition and promoting a totally unrealistic image akin to people with physical disabilities who could miraculously win the Winter Olympics if they wish hard enough and have the right cheerful attitude.
To underline the mercenary taint of the breast cancer awareness culture of today, the documentary reveals that the pink ribbon is born because Charlotte Haley, who created the original peach ribbon for a grassroots campaign to urge increased spending on research on cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute, refused to let Self magazine and Estée Lauder use that ribbon for what she perceived as marketing campaigns. So they used the ribbon anyway, only changing its color to pink, and Ms Haley couldn’t anything about it.
Pink Ribbons, Inc. is a thought-provoking documentary, but it’s an unbalanced one, as the critics of the pink ribbon culture far outnumber the folks from the pink ribbon culture here. While the documentary has plenty to say, it sort of meanders around, jumping from here to there and back again. But it succeeds in doing what it sets out to do: to get people to think before they go pink the next time around, and to hold these non-profit organizations more accountable for the way they put the donations to use.
As we’ve seen from large profile cases such as the recent Central Asia Institute farce, it is often too easy to believe that we can change the world for the better by blindly giving our money and time to those organizations that speak the loudest and in the most persuasive manner possible. In truth, the organizations that are making a difference are most likely those with miniscule budget for publicity as their funds are all tied up with actual efforts to make the world a better place. It’s harder to locate those organizations, but it’s probably better to make an effort to do so instead of just blindly sending a few hundred bucks to the likes of Komen just because they have such pretty brochures and grand public activities.
Therefore, the take-home messages of this documentary can be extrapolated to other causes too. If you make it a habit to donate money and time for a cause, or are thinking of doing so in the future, give this one a watch. It may not be balanced, but it says many things that need to be said.