Pink Ribbons, Inc. — Rage against the marketing machine’s "shiny, pink success story"

A “conversational” documentary film review by Judy Gombita and Madeline Lunney

Question 13 of our PRoust Questionnaire:

“Has a novel, film, play or other work of fiction ever influenced you as a PR practitioner?”

Answer: Pink Ribbons, Inc.

In early January, we were invited to a private screening of the National Film Board’s feature documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc. (which premiered at TIFF 2011), directed by Léa Pool and produced by Ravida Din (NFB executive producer, feminist and a breast cancer survivor).

With commentary from a host of North American activists, authors, medical and philanthropy subject experts (primarily female), this powerful film narrates the devastating reality of breast cancer: its effects on sufferers, lack of real knowledge about its causes, current treatments, plus questions about where the enormous funds raised are allocated. This is set against the manufactured messages and “breast cancer culture” of hope and optimism, promoted by charitable foundations. Also explored is the darker side of cause marketing practised by some corporations.

Following is a tête-à-tête about the success (or not) of the film’s narrative and key messages, including how it has impacted us, professionally and personally.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. — Rage against the marketing machine’s “shiny, pink success story”

Judy Gombita (JG): Madeline, we first met because of a shared love of documentaries—you with your work with the Hot Docs festival regarding documentary filmmaking for NGOs and me being a long-time Doc Soup subscriber.

What do you think are the key elements needed to make a successful documentary film? And does Pink Ribbons, Inc. achievet these goals?

Madeline Lunney (ML): The best documentaries engage viewers in a type of exploration guided by the filmmakers, so you gain an insider perspective on events and people. This translates into insights you didn’t have before seeing the film.

I think the strength of Pink Ribbons, Inc. is that it deals with the politics of cause marketing while featuring personal perspectives. It builds powerfully to highlight the issues related to a saturation of marketing, with pink ribbons on everything from shampoo to light bulbs to cars. This contrasts with the stories of real women dealing with breast cancer. There’s a stark disparity between the playful, sometimes silly, events that sponsors were holding to run or walk for the cure, and the dignity of women dealing with stage four breast cancer, which they were told could not be cured. I’m still thinking about those women and what they said about their disease being used for someone to profit.

What did you particularly appreciate about the film, Judy?

JG: For me a documentary’s narrative has to have consistency and balance, both in terms of diversity of voices and viewpoints and at least some objectivity. For the most part I think Pink Ribbons, Inc., does this, although obviously it is weighted more towards an indictment of current practices and the manufactured “pretty and feminine” culture that has grown, rather than support and praise for the architects of fundraising efforts.

The articulate use of language was really enlightening, both from the activists, book authors and medical professionals and even from the foundation and corporation leaders. Despite myself, I had to admire how relatively convincing the individuals could sound, even when defending a dodgy partnership, like the founder and CEO of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s support of KFC’s “Pink Buckets” campaign (introducing the “healthier” grilled chicken)—how could she not notice it was a “shocking disconnect?” Or (now deceased) Evelyn Lauder waxing lyrically about lighting up 38 major monuments in pink floodlights, around the world (i.e., its Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s Global Illumination Campaign). I mean, really, how does this admittedly pretty practice “raise awareness” about breast cancer?

The film has caused me to question (and adjust, personally) words in the common vernacular relating to cancer:

  • “battling” breast cancer
  • [the Ford] “warriors” campaign
  • “survivors”
  • “fell victim to” and so on.

Even when I was drafting the introduction, I paused about what word to choose. I decided “sufferers” was the most honest—because these women are suffering through “slash, burn and/or poison” (i.e., surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy) treatments, as per Dr. Susan Love’s description. I think it was Barbara Ehrenreich who emphasized she hadn’t battled anything—she simply showed up for all of her scheduled appointments to have poison dripped into her, then suffered through the after effects in isolation. I really appreciated her matter-of-fact perspective and minimalist, non-heroic commentary throughout the film; she’s probably a breast cancer cause marketer’s worst nightmare.

IV League stage four support group.

And, yes, the most poignant speakers of the entire film came from the IV League stage four support group. Although they are all living on borrowed time and mainly working to support one another, I think it was a tremendous gift to the film’s audience that they are given voice.

The activists made me angry; the stage four women made me weep. This was because of their resolute support of one another when no other options exist and also their quiet defiance about not being used or portrayed as victims. Speaking of language with impact: “…our disease is being used for people to profit—and that’s not OK.” The October Breast Cancer awareness campaign is designed to be “comforting.” “As long as it [cause marketing] works they are going to keep using it.”

Madeline, did you notice any words or descriptions in particular?

ML: I was struck by the statement early on that women used to march in the streets (to protest and celebrate) and now we don pink T-shirts in support of what are essentially marketers’ campaigns. It is true we’re encouraged to buy into a kind of sisterhood that has grown up around cancer diagnosis, particularly around breast cancer.

On the one hand, it’s wonderful for women to feel supported because others are experiencing the same thing. Plus that there are places to turn for answers, other than the Western medical professionals. I do believe people should be given options and sign-on to actions to deal with illness in meaningful ways.

However, the “tyranny of cheerfulness” that one interviewee spoke about belies the serious nature of a cancer diagnosis and, shown so poignantly in the film, excludes women who are not “survivors,” or who don’t feel cheered up by buying a pink teddy bear.

One woman said that when she sees the pink ribbon logo she sees “evil”. Of course this is a bold statement about corporate greed and hypocrisy. To me, the pink ribbon cheapens the efforts of people and organizations who are genuinely offering support to those living with cancer.

Judy, what did you think of the technique of using multiple interview subjects?

JG: I thought it was incredibly effective, especially in regards to demonstrating quintessentially female “communication” techniques, in terms of exploring a subject thoroughly, research for proof, analysis and trying to reach a consensus and call to action through persuasive language—fact based, but also intuitively and emotionally driven, in a positive sense.

Although in many ways it’s a very female-centric film (subject matter, director, producer and the vast majority of subject experts), I believe it will appeal to men, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost is because almost all men have been impacted by breast cancer in terms of their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters or work colleagues and friends, and some of them have participated in activities for the cure. Secondly, because I think it is a really thoughtful exploration with all of those interview subjects detailing how women think and feel, whether it be the learned medical professionals, researchers or activists, or the testimonials (i.e., articulation) and the emotional response of the participants in the efforts. This means that men can better appreciate what the important women in their lives are going through should a diagnosis of breast cancer be received.

The marketing aspect of the “cause” may be enraging, but I don’t think anyone will walk away from this film feeling like the individuals (females and males) who walk or run for breast cancer, etc., do it for anything but the best of intentions to play a part in “beating” breast cancer through funds raised. And the sense of accomplishment and gratification about doing something good is palpable.

The use of interview subjects is quite common in documentary films. How do you rate the efforts in Pink Ribbons, Inc., Madeline?

ML: I, too, thought the filmmaker did a fantastic job using interviews to tell the story, including many activists calling attention to the hijacking of the cause, and others committed to the fundraising efforts and corporate campaigns.

The sections with Barbara Brenner (executive director of Breast Cancer Action) were particularly powerful when juxtaposed with the images of the fundraising efforts, in which people appeared to be oblivious to the issues discussed in the film. The interview with Nancy Brinker (CEO of the Susan G. Komen Foundation) clearly showed her passion for the cause, but also a commitment to accepting funds from any company willing to put a pink ribbon somewhere.

I also liked the commentary by Samantha King, on whose book Pink Ribbons Inc. is based. She pulled things together a few times during the film.

Judy, do you think some companies came out looking worse than others?”

JG: There were two categories of “cause marketers” who came across as distasteful. The first group is relatively innocuous—the companies who mainly look at it as an opportunity to cash in on the “pinkwashing” halo to sell more goods or services (a bit of a dupe to consumers willing to shell out funds for pink beribboned products), such as Yoplait or American Express (that campaign was particularly disingenuous from a fundraising perspective, so I’m glad it was exposed by the activists such Barbara Brenner and halted).

The second and worse category comprises companies whose products might actually be contributors to various forms of cancer—pharmaceuticals, cosmetic companies, automotive manufacturers, etc.—who are hiding behind fundraising foundations and efforts. Sure, they are raising millions of dollars, but we aren’t seeing any evidence of them actually voluntarily changing the “formulas” or workplaces of what they make and sell, to stop the possible encroachment and diagnosis of breast cancer at the source: their core offerings.

Fundraising is really part of your bailiwick, Madeline. What are your thoughts?

ML: Consumer-oriented philanthropy has been around for a while, but with diminishing foundation and government funds, non-profits are challenged to explore if and when they are willing to “partner” with corporations. The film contributes to the discussion by highlighting the lack of funding for prevention versus treatment, to the benefit of donors (as you mentioned, such as pharmaceutical companies). And then there are the questions about lack of research into the environmental causes of cancer, and the campaign support of companies that are polluting the environment or of cosmetic companies that include ingredients known to be toxic in their products.

A central theme of the film is that cause marketing attached to pink ribbons is used to “numb and dumb” people into believing they are participating in something real, while big companies promote their products and relatively little research into prevention is carried out. Would it feel better if more had been accomplished? Absolutely. But I’d still be left wondering about who is benefiting the most….

For me, the film delivered a powerful message that made me feel “pissed off” (as Eleanor Brenner predicted) now that I know more about the marketing machine behind various pink ribbons efforts.

What about you, Judy, did anything in particular enrage you?

JG: We’ve both alluded to the corporations where evidence suggests they are potentially doing more to harm women with their (toxic)  products than good in fundraising efforts. That is infuriating. But I think a huge finger should be pointed at both the official charitable organizations and the foundation efforts about where and how the millions of dollars (and other currencies) of funds raised are being spent. I want people to go and see this film themselves (if possible) or purchase it later when it’s available as a DVD, so let’s not give away the actual percentages.

Suffice it to say that the percentage given to both prevention research and (possible) environmental causation research is absolutely pitiful. Who appears to be benefiting the most from the funds raised for research? Pharmaceutical companies (or equipment manufacturers) whose next-generation products merely prolong the lives of women with breast cancer a bit longer….

The film focused primarily on North America, but there were some international issues mentioned. Madeline, were there any that resonated with you?”

ML: There were a few:

  • an event in Egypt, where the Susan G. Komen Foundation seemed to be exporting a Western approach to cause marketing
  • the reminder that it’s mainly Caucasian, North American women being studied
  • the lack of sharing research globally; and
  • mention of the practice of shipping antiquated medical machinery and ineffective cancer treatments overseas.

Judy, did you have any criticisms of the Pink Ribbons, Inc. documentary?


JG: I really only have one major criticism. As you know, I first saw this documentary during TIFF 2011. At my first screening, something bothered me about the interview with Carol Cone, vice-chair at Edelman Good Purpose and known as “the mother of cause marketing.” So I tested my reaction at the January screening. My criticism: I believe she was sold a false bill of goods in terms of what the film was about—an indictment of cause marketing, not the true or at least aspirational benefits that can be attained. Although her screen time was limited, she was quite passionate and appeared thoroughly genuine about building partnerships between companies and social issues, in terms of her words and body language. If I’m correct, that’s a bit disingenuous.

If you recall, I asked after our screening if Carol Cone had seen the film yet and what she thought about it. People from the Edelman Toronto office were invited to an earlier screening, but I suspect Carol Cone had not seen it. Quite frankly, I feel bad for her. There are a lot of other spokespeople and companies I’d indict before her and Edelman Good Purpose.

And not really a criticism, but I would have liked more screen team for environmental cause researchers such as Dr. James Brophy and Dr. Margaret Keith and their work with the The Plastics Focus Group women. Of course maybe there’s not that much research being done, given the lack of funding devoted to this area.

Is there anything you wish had been done differently, Madeline?

ML: At points in the film I felt uneasy that individuals shown at various fundraising efforts—women and men—might feel somewhat foolish about the way they were portrayed, especially as there were no in-depth interviews with these people. Maybe they are aware of the cause marketing machinery and its huge contradictions, and would have explained their support in a way we hadn’t yet heard.

However, I also get it that the message of the film is that people can put their energies behind other expressions of solidarity with loved ones, and more effective efforts to find a cure. And of course these people were out in public, doing and saying what they believe, and the filmmaker simply recorded this for us.

I think it’s important for people to be informed and to critically explore the causes they support. This is a film I hope people will see so that we can continue the debate.


JG: I agree with you, Madeline. This is an important documentary for a really wide audience, but one that should particularly resonate with communicators and corporate social responsibility advocates.

So it’s two (big) thumbs up for Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Useful Links

Watch the official trailer (which really captures the “essence” of the film) and see the Canadian release dates and locations. (In most Canadian cities the release date is February 3, 2012.)

USA Playdates (primarily film festivals).

Pink Ribbons Inc.: The people behind the film

Pink Ribbons Inc. – A first step to dialogue (New! Review by Paul Nazareth who works in philanthropy. Started out at the film wearing a “pink” tie. Took it off part way through.)

Update: Following Heather Yaxley’s query in the comments about why do these stories take so long to be told, I checked into the production schedule a bit more (via the media kit). Emphasis mine.

Besides the time it took to secure NFB  approval and funding, producer Ravinda Dar, joined by researcher, writer and associate producer Nancy Guerin in 2006, spent four years in research and development of Pink Ribbons, Inc. and a year was devoted to interviews and filming.

When director Léa Pool joined the project in October 2009, a wealth of resources had already been compiled by Guerin and writer Patricia Kearns, who had been researching the film for 18 months. Pool took the material in hand, did eight months of additional research (with Guerin) and wrote the shooting script before filming began in May 2010…. Pool spent eight months editing the documentary.

Images used with the authorization and permission of the National Film Board. Photo credits: Léa Pool.

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6 Replies to “Pink Ribbons, Inc. — Rage against the marketing machine’s "shiny, pink success story"

  1. Toni,

    Thank you for your kind words. Madeline and I really enjoyed having the debate/conversation both in person and for the benefit of PR Conversation’s readers and commenters.

    I don’t mind, at all, you telling the story about the American Express work. I do think there are cases where cause marketing/corporate social responsibility are above board. That’s why we need to seek out the positive case studies, not just the negative ones like the hijacking of breast cancer.

  2. I absorbed this exchange with interest, awe and admiration.

    Thank you.

    If you don’t mind my intruding, I would like to add some historical background on how and why cause marketing really started, only to become what today is often a linus-like, warm and self centered way for corporations to appear to do good by making money.

    Despite what many books say about cause marketing, it all began back in the late seventies in one company that I happened to be consulting at the time.

    Jerry Welsh a teacher of Russian become head of worldwide marketing for American Express faced a serious issue:

    in many areas of the USA shopkeepers and restaurants refused to accept the green card because they were obliged to return to the issuer higher commissions than they would for Visa or MasterCard.

    As we all experience around the world not much has changed since from this perspective, but I cannot think of any other recent marketing stunt by a specific company that has become, in itself, a marketing and public relations discipline now being used by all sorts of organization.

    Basically what Welsh experimented in the later second part of the seventies was in local communities, convincing restaurants and shopkeepers to accept the green card in return for intelligent and creative promotional efforts by the company to get their cardholders into those restaurants or shops and offer to pay with their green card.

    Typically Welsh would limit the validity of the scheme to a limited time, to a specific community. He would research and select local non profits, cultural institutions that were believed to be close to the heart of their card holders and launch a program (a week or even a month) of direct communication with their cardholders in the area and of in-store materials.

    Results were from the beginning surprising, and acceptance of the card grew significantly.

    After having toyed with the idea and experimented various mixes of communication ingredients, Welsh started imagining a huge national campaign but was uncertain of its results (one thing is to fail in Cincinnati or Des Moines, another is to fail nationally). So in 1981 he decided to launch a call for proposals to his international consultants offering to finance a national campaign in a small country to see the results.

    Italy won the bid.

    Our program had selected the cause of saving the Italian coastline against destruction, construction and pollution and had achieved an alliance with three main subjects: the WWF, the major Italian publisher, Rizzoli-Corriere della Sera, and the shopkeepers and restaurant associations.

    Wont’ go into the details, but the two-month campaign was a huge success and this convinced Welsh to put all his money for the famous restoration of the Statute of Liberty project that was such a tremendous success in 1983.

    Sorry for the intrusion, but figured this was an opportunity to set the record straight. As usual, Heather and Judy, I drive my own agenda… 🙂

  3. Heather, I hope Pink Ribbons, Inc. gets (or already has) UK distribution. I’ve asked the NFB to keep us informed about sales; I will update the links at the bottom as information becomes known (Canadian distribution was pretty much assured, given that it’s from the National Film Board and played at TIFF. Travelling around and screening at US film festivals increases its chances of other international sales.) Thank you for the positive feedback, as you are a tough (but valued) critic regarding usefulness from a PR and communication perspective.

    I will attempt to answer some of your queries.

    What should the response be from the PR/marketing world? I would recommend that PR reps of any organizations involved in or considering cause marketing try to get their hands on a copy to screen for applicable staff: appropriate members from the leadership team (CEO, CFO, CCO and branding VP) and especially the overly zealous marketers. At a minimum, this is a prime opportunity to earn the right to ongoing counsel in this important area of corporate social responsibility, regarding informed appropriateness (maybe some corporate soul searching about possible outcomes, good and bad).

    You highlighted the length it’s taken for these kind of stories to be told. Two comments. Firstly: I learned from one of the publicists for this film that Pink Ribbons, Inc. itself took years of lobbying by the producer, Ravida Din, to get funding. I think it was close to 10 years. And this is an executive producer at the NFB…covering a topic that is highly personal to her. Secondly: I suspect this type of film is subject to a ton of review by legal minds and also monitored closely by lobbyists with a vested interest (for their company’s offerings and/or for funding). So many organizations are put under the microscope in this documentary, which is one of the film’s strengths, but also likely posed some of the greatest challenges for the producer and director—the different areas needed to be fact-based and informed opinions, not speculative.

    Why does breast cancer receive so much more attention, indeed! A theme in the film, which Madeline and I did not explore, was how women’s bodily parts are so sexualized, particularly in Western cultures. One of the interview subjects mentioned how this particular form of cancer allowed “breasts” to be talked about in a way that went unquestioned by the more conservative elements of society. It’s almost like the threat to breasts is a greater loss than other, less sexy, body parts, like one’s liver or pancreas.

    Within minutes of publishing I heard offline from an acquaintance whom I very much respect and admire. She indicated that when undergoing chemotherapy she received what seemed like extra-special consideration because her’s was breast cancer, versus others receiving chemo for other forms of cancer. I must remember to ask her if she was consciously aware of this difference prior to reading our review of this film. She also told me that she really appreciated my section talking about language choices. Does the marketing and fundraising for other forms of cancer or illnesses make use nearly as much of terms like “battling” and “survivor?”

    I couldn’t agree more that I wish our trade associations and industry publications would dig deeper into these ethical matters. Perhaps the lesser reason is because it would implicate organizations where members work…and if the enterprise or charity or government body, etc., was actually engaging in unethical or questionable practices, the associations would be loath to sanction them. Besides which, almost no PR or communication trade associations have any teeth to their codes of ethics.

    But I think the more important reason is that the official recognition and promotion of CSR and non-profit initiatives tends to focus on short-term “campaign” based ones, rather than ongoing efforts (like the type of work Tom Murphy is involved in with Microsoft). Generally campaigns are what are submitted for association awards and written up in the trade publications, print and online. I know I was deeply disappointed when my national PR association moved its webinar program to featuring “award-winning” programs—which are, of course, “submitted,” together with a fairly substantial fee.

    Because award programs are money-makers for associations (who have limited revenue sources beyond dues), I don’t actually see either the practice or the focus changing anytime soon.

    But you have given me an idea that I quite like: what if our trade associations instituted an awards stream that focused on academic or research body studies of things like ethical issues in business? This would make the submissions and winners more based on the big-picture, in terms of impact on practice (such as probable outcomes) for the entire industry, rather than being self-serving congratulations for the organization (or agency of record) that “submitted” the case study with the fee. Promotional/cause marketing could be an ongoing category in and of itself.

  4. Judy and Madeline – thank you for this great conversation about a topic which is relevant to anyone considering a cause-related initiative, whether for corporates, activists, charities or government/public sector organizations. I look forward to seeing the film in due course.

    I am wondering what you both feel should be the response from the PR/marketing world to this movie?

    For me, there is much to think about here and it is fascinating that it has taken so long for these stories to be documented. In many ways, the issues are similar though to those we do hear (occasionally) regarding disaster relief and aid initiatives. I’m sure similar stories could also be documented (but rarely are) for those engaged in supply industries that have recently been subject to the CSR/sustainability glossy spotlight.

    Part of the problem I think has to be that everything in society is now considered within the prism of modern promotional culture (Wenick’s term). This perspective that everything is marketed (from causes to social change) results in the pink, fluffy glow that is seen in the breast cancer ‘promotional industry’; whilst the real experiences are less attractive in terms of their promotional aspects. Where are the campaigns for the less glamourous illnesses? At the same time, unfortunately charities learn that playing the promotional game gets attention. So we’ve had celebrities talking about their mental health issues to get this subject on the national media agenda in the UK. That may be useful in opening the door to previously taboo topics – but it doesn’t seem to progress to more meaningful discussion of real life experiences and challenges.

    Life is made more superficial – which prevents genuine understanding and dialogue. It can also be used to by causes (and governments) to manipulate the public. With PR students over the past three years, I’ve discussed the Scottish Kill Jill donor campaign using the argument put forward by Professor Hugh McLachlan. In its original form, this was a print article that online led to a debate with someone responsible for the campaign.

    The issues raised for PR/marketing practitioners by such debate need to be reflected upon not just by students but by our trade bodies. These ethical matters cannot simply be addressed by codes of conduct – and require a deeper understanding than most communication practitioners have which essential is derived from their personal beliefs. I wrote a post last year in which I advocated a need for the establishment of a centre of ethical enquiry for public relations.

    I’m sure most of us believe that PR and marketing can be a force for good and likewise that the motivations of businesses and government are not solely selfish. This means we have to get grown up about our work and recognise the legitimate concerns that appear to be evident in this documentary. Do you agree?

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