Cashing In on Breast Cancer: A Review of 'Pink Ribbons, Inc.'
Last month, walking down a busy city street, I saw a woman wearing a black shirt with shiny pink cursive on it.
I assumed it was a breast cancer awareness shirt, and indeed it was. But after making that assumption, my next thought was: Wait, it's not even October yet.
A new documentary called Pink Ribbons, Inc., from filmmaker Lfamp;copy;a Pool, explores how and why breast cancer awareness (also called "pink ribbon culture") became such big business, and whether heightened "awareness" is really making a difference in the lives of real women.
The film's central thesis is that years ago, corporations and philanthropists discovered that fear, carefully cultivated, inspires passion, and that passion can be directed to their own financial gain.
And so the launch of breast cancer awareness campaigns, and a month-long glut of products decorated with pink ribbons.Through interviews and research, Pink Ribbons, Inc., argues that American women have been told to take ownership of breast cancer, whether or not they have it or know someone who has, and this has created more a drive to purchase endless pink products than to find a cure.
"The most important risk factor for breast cancer is being a woman," points out Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade in the movie. Then again, the most important factor involved in almost any successful marketing scheme is also a product's appeal to women, who buy about 80 percent of consumer products. And associating with a cause always increases sales: thus the pink ribbons on Yoplait yogurt, Avon products, and Fuze drinks every October and sponsorship of everything from skydiving to horseback jumping events to, of course, the annual Susan G. Komen Run for the Cure in Washington, D.C.
A Washington resident, I know this event attracts massive crowds, and as the footage shows, it brings a wide swath of emotional, empathetic women, even as many of them are dressed in pink wigs and t-shirts with pink hand prints over their breasts.
Carol Cone, a public relations expert from Edelman Purpose interviewed in the film, calls the gathering a "sisterhood" supplied partly by events, but more by companies through branding efforts that encourage sales and have even been used to rehabilitate the image of organizations such as the National Football League.
And so, Cone and others suggest, although women typically respond to breast cancer awareness campaigns with the best intentions, wanting to do something to contribute and looking for something to fight against, the campaign feeds itself more than research.