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The Year’s Must-See Movie So Far: “Pink Ribbons, Inc.”

Before we get into this, there’s one thing I should make clear: I’ve never had a problem supporting those who raise funds for breast cancer research. In fact, I’ve undertaken similar projects myself, running races (including marathons) to raise money for cancer and AIDS research, and I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute thousands of dollars in this fashion.

Why share such personal stuff? Because it’s a natural place to start exploring the much-needed critical thinking at the heart of Léa Pool’s riveting documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. In other words, did I ever bother to check the efficacy of the various health-related charities to which I contributed? And by “efficacy,” I don’t mean the percentage of its revenues that went directly to the cause instead of the organization itself; a lot of us are good about doing our homework in that regard, and these days charities often present the relevant figures in a clear and upfront manner. What I mean is whether those revenues themselves really have a long-term track record of leading to clinical breakthroughs in treatment… or even of (and this really shouldn’t be an “even,” as Pink Ribbons, Inc. points out), you know, actually preventing the disease in question?

The specifics of Pink Ribbons’ critique of the “breast cancer culture” on this count is beyond the scope of this blog, as is its assertion that many of the corporate powerhouses backing the pink ribbon symbol earn profits from selling known carcinogens. Yet that doesn’t mean that such claims shouldn’t themselves be scrutinized and refuted as needed. But that’s my point: where is the dialogue around any of this—in the media, in schools, and among all the friends who support each other’s walk-a-thons?

Again, I think my own lack of a) reflection on the real results of my charitable giving and b) any in-depth critical thinking about the organizations involved, is pretty common. It’s as if certain entities create brands that are so powerful that we never question their partnerships, politics, or their reification of particular practices and slogans. Then again, that’s probably one of the main goals of successful branding: to have us put our trust implicitly in an image, an idea, a name.  Clearly when it comes to breast cancer the Komen Foundation has taken some PR hits since Pink Ribbons, Inc. was made (it debuted at the Toronto film fest last year), but that’s kind of beside the point. That’s because the branding that the doc examines mostly concerns the staggering array of commercial enterprises that have allied themselves with the pink ribbon, thereby benefiting from all the goodwill that everyday folks extend to it. A stunning example from the film that you may have heard of concerns an American Express campaign from a few years back that donated one penny, not 1%, of every purchase to breast cancer research. Quick question for your students: who gets all the other pennies on a $500 purchase, and just what does the cost-benefit analysis of this strategy look like if you work in the marketing department at AmEx?

As might be clear by now, media and media literacy are not too removed from the heart of these issues. When fast food chains, cosmetics giants, and other companies adorn their advertising and promotional materials (via print, online, and broadcast media) with floods of pink… well, how easy is it to lose sight of the fact that advertising and promotion are even taking place? To be clear, I’m not saying that there aren’t countless sincere supporters of breast cancer research and patients in the ranks of such corporations. What I am saying is that it’s worth discussing the case that Pink Ribbons, Inc. makes, for example, against the NFL for its “pink-washing” of its brand following several notable player-related scandals. Oh, and speaking of support for current cancer patients, Pink Ribbons, Inc. also features moving first-person accounts from several Stage IV-women as well as insightful remarks by “survivors” (although they often object to the term) such as Barbara Ehrenreich; in this sense, then, the age-old media literacy question of “Whose voices aren’t being heard?” is addressed in often stunning fashion. For a better sense of all this, please check out the trailer:

After watching the trailer I wouldn’t blame you if your reaction was, “Okay, interesting. But don’t we have better things to do than pick on organizations whose intentions are obviously so good?”

My answer to that kind of sums my entire worldview since I feel that unexamined good intentions, and the way that they can so effectively co-opt the good intentions of others, is how we end up with the world that we have. I’d contend that most of the problems we encounter don’t stem from the designs of evil people—and this is very much true of media, where we tend to see outright maliciousness around every corner. Instead, it’s the systemic patterns we should be vigilant about, the hidden agendas, the convenience factor, our own lack of time or energy to think things through, and most of all that built-in potential of our noble goals to be co-opted over time. The result of the latter is that we take our eyes off the ball, getting swept up in a sea of positive emotions. It’s human, sure. But it’s also human to step back once in a while to question that entire being-swept-up process and those who would channel it for their own gain or profit. So although Pink Ribbons, Inc.  happens to address these issues vividly in one particular arena, its lessons can be applied throughout our culture. That’s why I’m recommending it to anyone who will listen.


Pink Ribbons, Inc. opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on June 1 and in several other U.S. cities on June 8. If you’re interested in the where where the film might be screening near you over the next couple of months, you can check out the list of playdates here.





About Peter Gutierrez