Movie review: Pink Ribbons

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Brett recently caught Canadian documentary Pink Ribbons at the Melbourne International Film Festival.The doco takes a look at the phenomenally successful pink ribbon movement in the US which, as here, raises funds for breast cancer research. Though flawed, it’s a must see for anyone in social marketing, health promotion, PR, cancer research or philanthropy.

pink washing

Pink washing is sometimes hard to stomach.

This documentary has a clear agenda – debunk the work of those in the pink ribbon movement, in particular the Susan G Komen Foundation which has raised about US$1.9 billion since its inception in 1982. That’s billion with a B. If you associate pink or pink ribbons with breast cancer you have this global cancer megacharity to thank.

When a charity raises that much money, it gains enormous power into how a disease is perceived, marketed and researched. As you’d expect, Komen Foundation has some detractors, many of whom we meet during the documentary.

There’s little time given to defenders of the Foundation or the movement more broadly. Much time is given to a number of women in the final stages of breast cancer who feel that associating the disease they have with pink and positive imagery is demeaning. They don’t like the terms “fight” “battle” or “survivor” which are used constantly by fundraisers.

pink washing

Showing great spirit but shown little respect by the film makers.

There are numerous long segments showing tens of thousands of people, mainly women, participating in feel good walk-a-thons and survivor rallies. They embrace pink and have no trouble with terms such as “survivor” but they are presented as chumps, full of good intentions, high-fives and pink merchandise being sucked in to an evangelistic movement.

No pink-ribbon-funded scientists are interviewed.

Author Barbara Ehrenreich, whose book Nickled and Dimed in America is a must-read, reveals a distinct lack of marketing nous as she complains that while undergoing treatment for breast cancer she found advertisements for pink fundraising teddy bears insulting. Well Barbara, the bears aren’t for you. They are bought by other people to raise money to research better drugs for women just like you. Glad to have cleared that up. Like others, she resents all the polished positivity.

pink washing

What says CSR more eloquently than a pink handgun?

Critics claim that corporations are “pink washing” their harmful products under the guise of being good corporate citizens. The filmmakers are on firm ground when they assert that the Komen Foundation seems willing to deal with anyone. Pink handgun? Sure thing. Pink buckets of KFC? Sure. Pink yoghurt and cosmetics laced with chemicals associated with cancer? No problemo. Just pay Komen its share. FYI The McGrath Foundation had a similar deal with KFC here.

While those deals with devils may make the stomach churn the film makers seem to find any corporate involvement unacceptable. One interviewee wonders why corporates are required at all and refers to the civil rights movement as achieving a lot with no support from business. We guess she forgot that civil rights progress required a change of conscience and legislation – not high priced global science. And we guess that the director forgot to mention this to her.

It’s been a tough year for Susan G Komen Foundation – it was broadly lambasted for defunding breast cancer-related programs at Planned Parenthood clinics across the US.

Unbalanced, under-challenging and overlong it may be but for an insight into what can happen when charities become too powerful, it’s worth your time. If you don’t believe me, read what the New York Times said.

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