Review – Seeing Red About the Green In Pink (“Pink Ribbons, Inc.”)

You can’t walk into a store these days without being inundated by the ubiquitous pink ribbons adorning every sort of product from food stuffs to clothing to automobiles. You’ve probably purchased something that promised a donation towards the “fight’ against breast cancer. Maybe you’ve even participated in a 5K run to support family or friends dealing with the disease. You have the best intentions, and you’re not alone. One organization has raised over 1.9 billion dollars via this method. So what has the real impact been of this phenomenon?

Sadly, not much. This disturbing fact, along with many others of equal discomfort, are at the heart of “Pink Ribbons, Inc.,” a new documentary now in general release. Director Lea Pool takes Dr. Samantha King’s 2006 book “Pink Ribbons, Inc. – Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy” and expands upon it via interviews, documentary footage, and current data.

Here are three facts gleaned from the film that should give everyone cause to pause:

* Since 1940, the chances of a woman developing some form of breast cancer have gone from 1 in 22 to 1 in 8.

* Only 5% of the money spent on breast cancer research goes into researching environmental causes.

* A large number of products sold that donate a portion of their proceeds towards breast cancer organizations contain ingredients known or suspected to cause cancer.

The film traces the transmogrification of the “fight” against breast cancer from political activism to consumer activism. Remember the days when you just wrote a check to The American Cancer Society? Or you joined a protest march against a corporate polluter? Now you can spend 50 cents on a container of yogurt, peel off the lid, wash it, stick it in an envelope, spend 45 cents on a stamp, and mail it back to the company so that they will make a 10 cent donation. Do the math.

And what about companies that “enlist in the war on cancer” that are on one hand developing pharmaceutical treatments for breast cancer but on the other hand sell pesticides containing cancer-causing agents?

As good as this film is in exposing the issues surrounding cause marketing, it fails to answer one simple question (though apparently not for trying. Companies are notoriously tight-lipped on the subject.) – How much do these companies profit from the sale of these products versus how much do they contribute to the cause? As one of the members of a Stage IV Cancer Support group asks, “Are they profiting from my disease?” If the answer is yes, would you still buy that paper towel?

The film’s bottom line is this – Has the cheerful, fuzzy pink aura built around breast cancer to facilitate “awareness” and charitable giving obfuscated the harsh realities of the disease? We still don’t know what causes it; the treatments are pretty much the same as they were 50 years ago, mortality rates are the same as they have been. Has the “branding” of the cause led us to fail to ask the tough questions? Where is the money going? How is it being spent? What exactly is being researched?

See this film. It may give you something to think about before you sign up for that next run…

“Pink Ribbons, Inc.” opens Friday, June 29th at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. It is also currently playing in New York and Los Angeles. Check your local theatre listings.

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