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Pink Ribbons, Inc. is a documentary that critically examines the relationships between companies and breast cancer. It focuses on the pink ribbon campaign that has seen numerous companies raise funds and awareness for breast cancer by adopting the pink ribbon symbol in their promotions and tying sales to donations to the cause. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Léa Pool and premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, the movie is based on the 2006 book Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy by Queens University professor Samantha King. The documentary focuses its attention on the activities of the Susan G. Komen charity (or ‘Komen’ for short), which first launched the Pink Ribbon campaign in the early 1990s. Komen is the largest breast cancer charity in the US and, according to its website, has donated more than $2.5 billion in breast cancer research, community health outreach, advocacy and programmes in more than 30 countries. Pink Ribbons, Inc. casts a critical light on many of Komen’s strategies and in particular their relationship to the many large corporations with which they partner. According to Komen’s website, the organization partners with more than a hundred corporations. ‘Each of them has made a positive impact on our mission to end breast cancer by taking a stand to do good while doing business,’ the organization states, ‘they’ve helped shape the face of the breast cancer movement through cause marketing, event sponsorship, community and employee engagement, and the power of volunteerism. We’re fortunate to have such dedicated and caring companies supporting our organization, and we thank them on behalf of the millions who’ve been affected by breast cancer.’ Pool’s documentary, however, presents another side to the story, focusing not only on the benefits of corporate involvement with charity, but also its limits and risks. At issue are the many pharmaceutical, cosmetics, and food companies that have partnered with Komen and that use the Pink Ribbon in the marketing of their products. For such companies, their core customers are typically women, among whom breast cancer is undoubtedly a significant personal concern. And many of these companies, in particular pharmaceutical companies, have products for which breast cancer patients are a considerable target market. The movie contends that there is a great deal of cynicism behind these commercially driven forms of business–charity relationships. The yoghurt manufacturer Yoplait, for instance, is claimed to have enthusiastically used the Pink Ribbon in its branding while selling milk products containing recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a possible cause of breast cancer. Similarly Estée Lauder and Revlon, important partners of Komen, are argued to have used a plethora of carcinogenic substances in their cosmetics. However, it is the pharmaceutical companies Astra Zeneca and Eli Lilly that are portrayed as the most blatant ‘Pinkwashers’: Pool contends that they not only profit from breast cancer through their respective cancer drugs, but they also produce hormones and other substances fed to farm animals that may be sources of cancer in humans. The movie thus exposes an approach to social responsibility by firms that focuses primarily on philanthropy while failing to address their core business practices. It also highlights some of the ethical challenges faced by civil society organizations such as charities. Komen is portrayed in the documentary as having failed to attend sufficiently to the interests of its own core stakeholder group of breast cancer patients and survivors. This is partly exposed by the type of research the organization funds: only 5% is actually dedicated to the research of cancer prevention and root causes, while the lion’s share is allocated to research on how to treat the disease—the latter of course being a potentially lucrative market for the very corporations that support Komen. By interviewing patients and survivors, the movie also questions the ‘shiny pink story of success’ narrative promulgated by Komen that has turned breast cancer into a ‘dream cause’ for companies. While breast cancer is a devastating disease, Komen predominantly celebrates it as a challenge that can be beaten and turned into a collective celebration of human survival—all within an increasingly commercialized atmosphere. So although Komen, its donors, and partner companies have undoubtedly done much to fund breast cancer research that might not have been otherwise possible, Pool’s documentary shows the dangers of tying commercial motives to people’s suffering. As one member of a cancer support group says, ‘It’s like our disease is being used for people to profit and that’s not okay.’


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