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We have enormous power if we would use it. [takeaways from Pink Ribbons, Inc.]

Pink Ribbons Inc. Movie Review |

Back in April, I sat down to watch a documentary that’s been on my Netflix queue for at least a year: Pink Ribbons, Inc. It’s a suggested movie for my CNE program and one I’m really glad I finally took the time to watch. The film takes a hard look at opposing views centered around the question:

What do you think when you see a pink ribbon?

That little pink ribbon, it turns out, is a loaded symbol with a fascinating history, and while the subject isn’t directly food-related, it’s one of those movies that opens your mind to new perspectives and information – not unlike the shift that happens when we start thinking critically about where our food is coming from. Many of the questions raised in the documentary center around intentions. Is the pink ribbon well-intentioned and does it inspire hope? Or, is it a distraction and a way to placate people who might otherwise be furious? Are the funds raised actually helping to cure cancer, or does raising the money simply make us feel like we’re taking action against a disease that scares us? I found that last point to be pretty unnerving.

I already knew Susan G. Komen & Avon were at the center of the breast cancer awareness/pink ribbon movement, but what I didn’t know was that the original ribbon was salmon colored and created by a woman named Charlotte Haley, who made five out of cloth and attached a note that read: “Did you know that less than 5% of the National Cancer Institute’s budget goes to cancer prevention? You can change this.” Charlotte intended the ribbon as a grass roots political movement, and when Estee Lauder and SELF Magazine approached her to use it for marketing, she declined because it was to enhance their own bottom line, not to help women. Unfortunately, Estee Lauder and SELF told Charlotte they would simply change the color and use it anyway, and ultimately, pink was chosen based on it being non-threatening, comforting, and reassuring.

Today, these pink ribbons are the most successful example of cause marketing. Companies know that women make 80% of the purchase decisions, and you’ll find the now-iconic ribbon on everything from cosmetics to alcohol to gasoline to dairy (including those with growth hormone rBGH, which has been linked to cancer). As an example, the film takes a look at Yoplait, with its “save lids to save lives” campaign, where for every lid sent in, they donate 10 cents. If you ate three containers of Yoplait for every day of the four month campaign, your total donation would be $34. The question asked is: who really comes out on top here?

Pink Ribbons Inc. Movie Review |

Another part of the movie I found really interesting was the psychology of the language used around “battling” cancer, with the message being that if you try hard enough (“live strong”), you can beat it. I honestly hadn’t considered the flip side of what at first appears to be a message of empowerment; however, there is potentially also the very sad implication that people who die weren’t trying hard enough. There’s a balance, certainly, between hope and understanding treatment may not work, but death is not a failure and calling people “survivors” may make it feel that way.

Along those same lines, the women interviewed also talked about breast cancer and the pressure to be optimistic. Some felt like they couldn’t have feelings of anger and despair, and that the pink ribbons movement made them feel obligated to maintain this optimistic outlook and participate in being cheerful. They, understandably, resented the effort to make a terrible disease pretty.

Something I’ve often wondered when I see pink ribbon walks (or any walks for a cure, for that matter) is where the research money is going. Pink Ribbons, Inc. says that it’s hard to know with so many players, and uncoordinated spending means overlapping studies, needless repetition, and huge gaps in research. Only 15% of money goes to research on prevention, and only 5% to research on the environmental causes of breast cancer.

I was also surprised to learn that only 20-30% of breast cancer happens in women with risk factors, and unfortunately, most research is not aimed at determining what’s causing the cancer. While many people think a cure is the answer, the reality is that pharmaceutical companies are looking for a treatment, not a cure, that will be marketable and profitable. The movie was a great reminder that we have to look at who is controlling the science, and in this instance, that would be pharmaceutical companies. AstraZeneca, as an example, makes a drug called Tamoxifen, which is an anti-estrogenic treatment for breast cancer…and yet they also own Syngenta, a pesticide company that makes Atrazine, which is a substance found to be estrogenic that’s banned in Europe because it’s endocrine-disrupting.

Pink Ribbons Inc. Movie Review |

The film suggests that we’ve thought about cancer as a foreign invader, which has distracted us from questioning what’s fostered it in our bodies. Personal products, for instance, have been linked to cancer and health problems (things like lipstick with lead – yes, this is still a thing). Did you know that there are no federal laws requiring safety tests for personal products? This is not to say that companies aren’t conducting them, but Revlon, Avon, Estee Lauder, etc aren’t making these tests public and are continuing to use chemicals linked to cancer in their personal products. The film had a really interesting take on this, stating that the solution is not to tell people to buy organic, or go vegetarian, but rather, the solution is to get the toxic things off the table as options. I’m not sure where I stand on that, but that’s a debate for another day.

As you can tell from my lengthy post, this is a complicated topic with a lot of points to consider, and Pink Ribbons, Inc. does an excellent job of asking important questions. Some of the film was very disheartening and it reminded me of how I feel when I learn about our food system, especially as it relates to animal cruelty. It can be so overwhelming, but we have to absorb the information, take a moment, and then ultimately push forward and do better. There is power in activism (big and small), and the film does end on a positive note, stating my favorite line of the film:

Individuals have enormous power if we would use it.

Have you watched Pink Ribbons, Inc? What did you think?


Photography by Aaron Scott


Leave a Comment

  1. Cadry says

    This sounds like a really interesting film! A lot of the concerns you laid out are ones that I’ve had with products that “build awareness” for diseases and ailments. Are people really “not aware” of breast cancer? I doubt that. So what do we gain by “building awareness” to a disease that most people already know exists? Instead we should be building awareness to change our habits/environments that contribute to disease. When I see pink ribbons on buckets of KFC, for example, it definitely feels like the companies making products are benefitting far more than cancer victims. Not to mention that KFC is hardly a food that contributes to health, wellness, and vitality.

    The part in your post about telling people that if they are “strong” they can “beat cancer” and “be a survivor” particularly resonated with me. There are similar religious messages often told to people that if they have faith and pray they will be healed from disease, thus implying that if people aren’t healed, it’s because they didn’t have faith. Both of these modes of blaming victims by proxy is unsettling to me.

    Many years ago I watched someone I care about die to brain cancer, and she was strong, she wanted to beat cancer, she had faith, and within a year, she was gone. We don’t always get a choice, regardless of our will and wishes. My boyfriend at the time, who is a filmmaker, made a documentary about this person (his mother) with the plans of it being a movie about her “beating cancer.” That’s not the story that the film ended up telling, unfortunately. It’s not an easy movie to watch, as you can imagine, but if you’re interested it’s available online here:

    1. Amanda says

      Thank for sharing your thoughts, Cadry. Pink Ribbons mentioned the KFC campaign, as well as others like the NFL, which used the pink ribbons for damage control after a series of bad PR (I think it was player misconduct – perhaps even some violence against women). That is so obviously NOT about benefitting those with cancer.

      I’m sorry to hear you lost someone to brain cancer. Although the story in the film was not the one intended, the one told is so incredibly important. I will have to check out the film.

  2. I absolutely love Pink Ribbons, Inc. Like the film Blackfish, it completely changed my perception of a powerful, dominant corporation. I used to donate to Susan G. Komen; after they stopped giving grants to Planned Parenthood, I stopped giving them my money. Pink Ribbons, Inc. made me even more concerned with their practices, especially since they donate so little of their money to research.

    1. Amanda says

      I’ve yet to watch Blackfish, but I’ve heard it’s a very powerful film. Did you find it to be very graphic? I’ve taken a break from documentaries on animal cruelty because the last couple have been too much for me.

      1. It’s not graphic, per se, but very upsetting nonetheless. I would highly recommend it.

  3. Patti RN says

    The medication is correctly spelled “tamoxifen”…not the way you spelled it. Otherwise I agree with all the points you are making in this post, enjoy your blog very much!

    1. Amanda says

      Thanks, Patti! I’ve updated the spelling.

  4. Rosie Slosek says

    I am so pleased that finally someone is talking about this. Just because someone does A Thing and says it’s for breast cancer doesn’t automatically make it Wonderful. Most of it is destructive insidious marketing. I won’t donate or buy anything with the pink ribbon on it as a protest. If you really care about cancer, and that little gem ‘raising awareness’, then donate straight to the charities who publicly do the research that actually targets what tips pre-cancerous cells to cancerous, and how to treat it safely. Cancer isn’t like a virus or bacteria, it’s normal cells that go pre-cancerous then cancerous. It starts with us.

    1. Amanda says

      Yes! I agree about supporting research that is looking to identify the cause(s), with the focus being on prevention. Treatment is obviously crucial as well, but more attention should be given to preventing it in the first place.


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