Pinkwashing cancer – Pink Ribbons, Inc. asks who’s benefiting most?

This Canadian documentary just potentially received unbeatable pre-release publicity with this weeks ongoing Susan G. Komen foundation storm, but only if more of us note this perfect timing and promote the film. Pink Ribbons Inc. is released in North America this weekend, and I hope it makes it to Australia soon.

The poster for a documentary on how a devastating disease became a shiny pink marketing dream.

Pink Ribbons, Inc: Capitalizing on Hope

The film depicts an alarming disconnect between the overwhelming corporate and social success of the pink ribbon campaign and the fact that the filmmakers determined only 15 per cent of monies raised go to research prevention, and five per cent to research environmental causes of breast cancer.
Quebec director Lea Pool, an award-winning feature filmmaker, thinks the solidarity of women, forged through the women’s movement, is being exploited. “When I feel we are being hijacked in a way, co-opted by all the big business, this for me is unacceptable.

“I don’t say people should stop raising money,” she says in a phone interview from Toronto, shared with [producer Ravida] Din. “We have to be more careful how we do this.

The pinkification of cancer fundraising and pinkwashing globally diverts generous people’s donations away from the organisations doing most of the work towards organisations who are just better at marketing. Does this sound like the best use of donors’ money? Meanwhile the corporations get a huge PR boost for donating cents per sale when going pink generates megabuck boosts in their revenues.

And what about all the non-pinkified cancers? By dominating the cancer fundraising landscape, pink ribbons divert attention and thus donations (and the research/screening/treatment those donations provide) from other cancers which affect just as many people. Compassion fatigue sets in when potential donors feel that they’ve already “done their bit for cancer” with pink ribbon campaigns and hardly pay attention to other cancer fundraisers.

Those who donate their time and money for causes they believe in deserve better than having their generosity exploited by organisations and corporations who donate far less than their publicity would have you think. It’s not just Komen in the US who does this – they’ve been so successful that they’re copied all around the world.

The documentary, and much other work in this area, was inspired by Samantha King’s book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy.

In Pink Ribbons, Inc., Samantha King traces how breast cancer has been transformed from a stigmatized disease and individual tragedy to a market-driven industry of survivorship. In an unprecedented outpouring of philanthropy, corporations turn their formidable promotion machines on the curing of the disease while dwarfing public health prevention efforts and stifling the calls for investigation into why and how breast cancer affects such a vast number of people. Here, for the first time, King questions the effectiveness and legitimacy of privately funded efforts to stop the epidemic among American women. Pink Ribbons, Inc. grapples with issues of gender and race in breast cancer campaigns of businesses such as the National Football League; recounts the legislative history behind the breast cancer awareness postage stamp—the first stamp in American history to raise funds for use outside the U.S. Postal Service; and reveals the cultural impact of activity-based fund-raising, such as the Race for the Cure. Throughout, King probes the profound implications of consumer-oriented philanthropy on how patients experience breast cancer, the research of the biomedical community, and the political and medical institutions that the breast cancer movement seeks to change.

Hat tip to Bellesouth’s great post laying out Why you should have boycotted Komen before this week, which links to the even more informative Think Before You Pink campaign’s website.

from Think Before You Pink: Critical Questions to Ask Before You Buy Pink – I’ll just list the questions here with my own brief summary of why it matters, go there for a fuller background on the questions.
1. How much money from your purchase actually goes toward breast cancer? Is the amount clearly stated on the package?
(Is it what you consider a reasonable amount, or is it insultingly small?)
2. What is the maximum amount that will be donated?
(Has the corporation capped the donation, has that cap already been reached, thus will your purchase actually contribute to the cause?)
3. How are the funds being raised?
(Does the corporation send money on from your purchase directly? Or do you have to mail in proof of purchase? Is the donation more than the cost of the stamps?)
4. To what breast cancer organization does the money go, and what types of programs does it support?
(Research? Screening? Treatment? Established and already well funded? New and innovative? Where exactly?)
5. What is the company doing to assure that its products are not actually contributing to the breast cancer epidemic?
(Many companies whose products have been linked to higher cancer rates invest heavily in the pink ribbon promotions. Should their cynicism be rewarded?)

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, health, medicine

Tags: , , ,

16 replies

  1. Yesterday I emailed the Cancer Council Victoria to ask if any of their money from the pink ribbon campaign goes back to the Susan G Komen foundation for licensing, because I sure as hell don’t want to support them, and not just for the Planned Parenthood defunding. It’s the weekend so they haven’t replied yet, but I will let you know their response!

  2. Some of that seems a little biased against what I consider a perfectly legitimate use of funds, if disclosed: patient (and carer or family or…) support, including, eg, offsetting indirect costs of treatment (accommodation costs, childcare costs). It’s not listed in their examples in question 4, and the review’s language strongly suggest that funding research is the only legitimate use of donor money, question 4 suggesting that treatment is perhaps also a valid use.
    I am not claiming pinkwashing isn’t a real concern, and moreover patient support is definitely a nebulous activity and could conceal a lot of dubious uses of money (eg, one could be handing out brochures with vague positive thinking exhortations on them), but I was rather struck by it since I’ve donated to charities specifically for that purpose.

  3. Yes, I was also bothered by the “only 20% to research” bit, because that’s not nearly as important (in my mind) as how much of their funding goes to admin, executive salaries, corporate schmoozing, etc rather than to breast cancer directly, whether that’s research, treatment, detection, or support.
    On the other hand, this organisation does invite that question by calling itself “Susan G Komen for the Cure”. At least to me, that implies an emphasis on research, rather than support.

    • Yep, all the emphasis on “the cure” (especially with the valorising of the survivors e.g. Survivor Of The Year competition) means that most folks would expect bulk of money to go on research rather than anything else. I suspect the quote that I pulled from the newspaper might have missed a point I would expect the documentary to make regarding how that compares to administrative/salary costs. I’ve read, but cannot confirm, that Nancy Brinker as CEO pulls down a $500K+ salary from the Foundation. How much does the rest of the executive get I wonder?

  4. I found this article by Timothy Noah interesting too, and ties in with what some of those women from the trailer were talking about:

    Closer to home, my late wife, the journalist Marjorie Williams, spent the last three and a half years of her life trying to get cured of, or at least postpone dying from, liver cancer. After she died I published a posthumous collection of her writings that included an unfinished memoir she’d written about being a cancer patient. I’m afraid the Komen Foundation wouldn’t approve. Far from embracing the Outward Bound-style challenge fate had gifted her, Marjorie flew into a rage when a woman she knew sent her a card to “congratulate” her on her “cancer journey.” The note “quoted Joseph Campbell to the effect that in order to achieve the life you deserved, you had to give up the life you had planned. Screw you, I thought. You give up the life you had planned.” The flip side to this upbeat talk, Marjorie knew, was that if you didn’t make it you had only yourself to blame—a principal theme in Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided. (Ehrenreich is herself a breast cancer survivor.) “I can’t count the times I’ve been asked what psychological affliction made me invite this cancer,” Marjorie wrote. “My favorite New Yorker cartoon, now taped above my desk, shows two ducks talking in a pond. One of them is telling the other: ‘Maybe you should ask yourself why you’re inviting all this duck hunting into your life right now.’ ” Shortly before Barbara Boggs Sigmund, the late sister of Cokie Roberts and a onetime mayor of Princeton, N.J., died of melanoma in 1990, she published an op-ed piece in the New York Times that addressed this vile conceit with admirable directness. “I Didn’t Give Myself Cancer,” was the headline. Nor did her failure to beat it indicate any psychological or spiritual deficit on her part, anymore than did Marjorie’s failure, or Hitchens’s.

  5. Thanks for the linkback. I took on the fight-cause-marketing cause about five years ago when I watched a TV program that opened my eyes about pink ribbon marketing. Immediately I started scrutinizing pink campaigns, looking carefully at in-store packaging, and telling as many people as I could that this is WRONG.
    I met with SO much hostility. A couple of years ago I posted my anger on the Sutter Home Facebook Page for selling BCA White Zinfandel. You wouldn’t BELIEVE the backlash I got. It’s sad that it has taken so long for this organization to be carefully watched by the world, but I am now glad to see that people on both sides of the Planned Parenthood debate are agreeing that this organization puts profits and image before women.
    I am very excited about the Pink Ribbons, Inc documentary, which has been a long time coming. I hope that with the recent publicity, the documentary will be released in more theaters.

  6. This reminded me of probably the most egregious pinkified product I’ve seen in a while. Komen denies a link with the retailer, but I still think it highlights exactly how ridiculous a lot of pink products have become.

  7. I really recommend Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Welcome to Cancerland’ – it changed the way I think about these things completely.

  8. Yes! I just reread it when someone else linked to it over at LP (I cross-posted there):

  9. Going back to Mary’s comment at #4, the fundamental message appears to be, as for so many other issues in life, to beware the spin and do our own homework on what’s going on behind the shiny.
    Research is absolutely not the only viable use of funds donated to support cancer patients (although it might be the most expected one for a group that markets “the cure” rhetoric so intensely). However, donating directly to the orgs already doing the work will likely do far more good in the long run than buying pink things of which only a trickle of the revenue raised will work its way down to them.
    Perhaps a list of more direct-action orgs would be useful? There probably are already a few around on the web, so anybody got any links?

  10. @tigtog – while I totally agree that buying a product (whether it’s a pink thing to support breastcancer or anything else that supports a charity) is not a substitute for and will not do as much as directly supporting a charity, isn’t it a little bit extra if you do it on top of the charities you support anyway?
    For e.g. if I buy, say, a shampoo that supports cancer research, rather than an equivalent product that doesn’t – even if it’s only 5 cents from the purchase price of the shampoo isn’t that an extra 5 cents the charity wouldn’t otherwise get? It’s only a trickle, but it’s an additional trickle if I don’t count my shampoo purchase as coming out of whatever money I have set aside for charity.

    • That strikes me as one possible from the array of informed choices, Rebekka. I’m not, and I don’t think the documentary is either, saying that it’s never possible for a pink ribbon or other cancer fundraising product to be a useful way to direct one’s donations. Just that there generally doesn’t seem to be enough transparency offered up front nor generally sought by potential donors, and it’s that lack of transparency which allows questionable practices to occur.

  11. Should have also said, also find the pinkwashing very problematic – was really only responding to your last comment.

    • With the “I need one of these anyway, might as well get the fundraiser one” decisions, I do see your point. I think it depends very much on the corporation behind the product. If the corporation is one you don’t mind adding your cash to its coffers, go ahead. If it is a corporation one finds ethically troubling, then don’t reward their PR cynicism with one’s cash.

  12. Yes of course – the normal considerations of exactly who you’re giving your money to still apply.

  13. Heard back from the Cancer Council in a polite and informative email – no donations go towards licensing the pink ribbon or other symbols, so we can donate here without anything going to the Komen foundation or other groups.

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