Pink Ribbons, Inc. tackles three interrelated questions. When people working for a good cause turn in directions that aren’t good—or might even be bad—do their virtuous intentions outweigh the unintended side effects of their activities? How far can the ethical standards of activists and philanthropists be trusted when people worship capitalism as blindly as many Americans do today? Can reverence for the almighty dollar infect even the most popular charities, transforming supposedly selfless enterprises into industries driven by the profit motive?
Directed by Swiss-born filmmaker Léa Pool for the National Film Board of Canada, the aptly titled Pink Ribbons, Inc. sets out numerous misgivings about monetized charity while mostly avoiding temptations to overstate or oversimplify its views. Its chief target is Susan G. Komen for the Cure, known as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation until it changed its name in 2007. This is the organization that made headlines earlier this year for announcing a decision to stop its financial support for Planned Parenthood—a decision reversed in less than a week, after news reports disclosed that antiabortion ideology, not altered circumstances or facts, had triggered the cutoff.
The film’s case against Komen is too detailed to sketch out here, but one of its more interesting points is related to the organization’s current name. By calling itself Susan B. Komen for the Cure, it conveys the message that curing cancer is more important than preventing the disease or palliating its effects on those afflicted by it. More broadly, the spread of pink ribbons throughout the land is designed to give the impression that progress is being made thanks to the benevolent folks who spread those pink ribbons. But how true is this? Although diagnoses have risen steadily, the same trio of options—surgery, chemotherapy, radiation—have dominated breast-cancer treatment for the past half century, and almost 60,000 women still die of the illness annually in North America, marking only a tiny decline from the 1990s.
A number of Komen’s fund-raising strategies are also worth pondering. The organization raised eyebrows in 2010 for striking a bargain with KFC whereby KFC peddled its fast-food chicken—hardly the healthiest dietary choice—in pink tubs and gave Komen fifty cents for every fatty, calorie-rich batch it sold. In a 2002 campaign, American Express trumpeted its agreement to give Komen money each time a customer used an Amex credit card, obscuring the puny size of its contributions, which amounted to a penny per transaction, no matter how large the transaction was. Most astonishing to me was Komen’s deal to accept part of the proceeds from sales of a Smith & Wesson pistol, described by the manufacturer as a full-size handgun “engraved with the ‘Awareness Ribbon’ on the slide and packaged with two pink grip inserts.”
Critics use the term “pinkwashing” to describe publicity stunts and marketing ploys like these, and the label certainly seems to fit. Komen has done a fine job of corporate branding, cross marketing, and linking its girly-girl trademark with an array of different products, obviously aware of research indicating that women buy more than three-quarters of all consumer goods. With money like this at stake, one can understand how a little “Inc.” might become the tail that wags the pink-ribbon dog.
Pink Ribbons, Inc. is a polemical film, not a scrupulously balanced one, but director Pool and producer Ravida Din place an impressive roster of experts on the screen, including women diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, noted sociologist and breast-cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich, and health-care researcher Samantha King, whose 2006 book Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy inspired the film. The questions they raise have implications for all sorts of deals and partnerships between nonprofit and for-profit organizations. No less a corporate cheerleader than Forbes magazine ran an article last year by Timothy Ogden calling it “unlikely [that] anyone unaware of breast cancer will become aware due to yet another pink product” and citing “behavioral economics research indicating that people who buy a ‘good’ product feel licensed to cut back on doing good in other ways,” such as “giving less to charity.” In cases like these, Ogden argued, “cause marketing can actually do more harm than good—the opposite of corporate social responsibility.”
Thinking about Pink Ribbons, Inc. got me thinking again about the most badly overrated documentary of 2012: Bully, director Lee Hirsch’s look at bullying in American schools. The glaring faults of Bully are plain to see: cyber-bullying, one of the most pernicious and pervasive forms of bullying, goes virtually unmentioned; all of the case histories are from small or medium-sized towns, as if this plague had somehow skipped all the big cities; even the film’s promotional tagline, “It’s time to take a stand,” is designed to make moviegoers feel like activists just by watching its sad parade of intimidated children, clueless parents, and impotent school administrators, none of whom has a single new idea to offer about solving the problem.
In his essay “How Bigger Was Born,” about the genesis of his 1940 novel Native Son, the great African American author Richard Wright explained his decision to make the story’s antihero, Bigger Thomas, a profoundly warped, bitter, and violent young man because he wanted the consequences of racial oppression to cut readers “so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” Bully takes on bullying in the opposite way, encouraging tears with the gusto of a soap opera and urging us to feel we’ve taken a stand by buying a ticket—the same feeling the pink-ribbons industry wants us to have when we buy a batch of deep-fried chicken in a pretty pink bucket.
The pros and cons of cause marketing are much too varied and multifaceted for one documentary to cover in depth. That said, Pink Ribbons, Inc. provides more food for thought in any five minutes than Bully does in an hour and a half. It’s just possible we’ve all been pinkwashed, and every concerned moviegoer should give this movie’s case a fair hearing.