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Pink Ribbons, Inc: A Culture of Pandering, Pinkwashing, and Profits

Updated: Jul 5, 2019

About five years ago, I participated in a focus group on sports drinks and bars. When asked to drink and taste these new products, I was struck by how many had pink ribbons on the packaging. I commented: “Wow, that’s a lot of pink,” which was met with a loud silence by the group.

Did I say something wrong? Was it taboo to talk about marketing and breast cancer in the same sentence? Perhaps then, but these days, not so much. The Pink Ribbon is under serious fire and there are good reasons why.

While there have been countless books, magazine articles, online campaigns, and watchdog groups swirling around the Pink Ribbon movement since it began more than 20 years ago, the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. brings a full-throttle  exposé of Pink Ribbon culture into the mainstream. The film focuses on exploited and bloated  “cause marketing”, raises questions about where pink ribbon donations go, why  fundraising is not slowing the rate of breast cancer or finding a cure, and how pink is not only sexist, but cultivates a “tyranny of cheerfulness” around cancer.

Taut, compelling, and sometimes shocking, the film relies on a patchwork of interviews with Pink Ribbon advocates, critics, writers, researchers, women with Stage 4 breast cancer, along with footage of the Pink Ribbon industry in action, all with the goal to show the less pretty side of pink.

As Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues points out “…breast cancer has been untouchable for a while. If you question anything, well then, you must hate women…That mentality makes it really hard to say, ‘What’s working? What’s not working?’ The goal is eradication. Isn’t that what we say we want?”

Pink Poster Child 

Going back to the roots of the Pink Ribbon, they were initially peach-colored cloth and created by a grandmother with breast cancer to spread grass-roots knowledge of the disease to her friends and their networks. After Charlotte Haley refused to sell the idea to Estee Lauder and Self Magazine in the early ’90s because she thought it commercialized the disease, Self did its own handiwork with in-house lawyers and focus groups and swapped the color peach for  pink. A star was born.

Pink Profits

Though it’s difficult to find fault with the initial goals of the Pink Ribbon movement: awareness, early detection, and research, the line has clearly been crossed between the motives of marketers pedaling the pink ribbon for profit during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month each October (which itself has unseemly roots, tied to drugmaker AstraZeneca, who makes both a breast cancer treatment and pesticide known to cause cancer.)

What started as a few products featuring the ribbon has spawned thousands of them slapped on every product imaginable—from vacuum cleaners, to diamond encrusted pins, to dog food, to the NFL and more. Some are point-blank tasteless or tend more towards titillation (literally) than doing any good. And some even can cause cancer themselves and have been the subject of thinkbeforeyoupink campaigns for pinkwashers. Putting the pink ribbon on packaging is almost a guarantee that consumers will buy it over one without, but in fact, very little goes to the cause and many companies have caps on the amount they will donate. One of the most famous and flagrant examples is Yoplait, donating 10 cents for every pink yogurt lid mailed back. This translates to eating three yogurts a day during the  four-month campaign in order to raise  $36 for the cause.

Pink Philanthropy

To make matters worse for the Pink Ribbon movement, its unofficial face, the  Susan G. Komen Foundation, has been under scrutiny for its ratio of donation allocation versus salaries and “administrative costs”.  It also turns out that precious few of the pink ribbon-generated dollars are spent on researching what causes breast cancer in favor of awareness, prevention, and mammograms (and salaries) that don’t make a dent in the finding a cure.

The documentary points out that the message women often hear is:  If you get a mammogram you won’t get breast cancer. But the reality is, you can get the disease no matter what. Awareness has little to do with it, nor does early detection. In fact, only 20-30% of women have risk factors, so finding out how the other 70-80% are getting breast cancer should be the biggest priority.

The film highlights lesser-known research investigating causal links between high rates of breast cancer and, for instance, car factory plastics that have been shown to mimic estrogen-like fumes and chemicals in our daily lives that are used in cosmetics, solvents, and materials that cause endocrine disruption. FYI, Susan B. Komen Foundation does not support these types of studies. Many of its corporate sponsors are considered cancer culprits themselves.

Of the money that does go to research from a variety of charitable organizations it’s uncoordinated so there is duplication of development effort (and  focused on white, middle-class educated women, not minorities). The result is wasted funding and, most importantly there is no cause identified or cure for breast cancer two decades after the pink ribbon made its debut.

Pink and Pleased

Another issue the Pink Ribbon Inc. covers well is the relationship between using pink as its signature color and the stereotyped connection with females, cheeriness, and yes, shopping. We all know this starts at birth with pink for girls and blue for boys but it takes on a colossal new meaning when applied to breast cancer. Pink is also associated with fun, excitement, sexiness. Inherent in this connection is the implication that if you are not embracing your inner pink, that you are not part of the culture of hope and happiness.

Pink ribbon identity does not wholly represent one group: those who die from breast cancer. There are 59,000 women each year that succumb to the disease. The film does a powerful job of giving a voice to women with Stage 4 cancer. As one of the women points out ” It’s a sad fact, that the language around breast cancer is that if you try hard enough you’ll survive and that if you die, somehow you didn’t try hard enough.” Or as another woman says, “We want people to see the faces of people living with this disease, we are not just a pink ribbon, we are a person.” Others in the Stage 4 group  say that somehow you’re considered a failure if you still have cancer—that you’re not a “survivor” or a “warrior” because you didn’t “save the tatas”. Some women have incurable breast cancer, whether they had a mammogram, took drugs, chemo or anything else. It’s an unfortunate fact.

Pink Progress?

After all this critiquing of the Pink Ribbon, what happens next? Clearly awareness of breast cancer has been achieved globally. But with all the mammograms, thousands of charity runs, walks, events, reams of research programs, pink packaging every October, and tons of money in the coffers of many organizations, there is still no identified cause nor cure for breast cancer. Pink Ribbon Inc. asks challenging questions but lets the viewer ruminate about next steps. As we know, knowledge is power. and that is a jumping off point for change. Questioning the status quo is not wrong, living with it, is.

Here is a list of  top-rated breast cancer research organizations.


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