Producing an exposé on the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s pink ribbon sounds like an attack on a sacred cow. Yet documentary filmmaker, Léa Pool’s Pink Ribbons, Inc. is not about stigmatising the raising of money for a worthy cause. Instead, it uses frank discussion to encourage debate about a grass-roots initiative that has grown into an industry that is not as rosy as it initially seems.

The National Film Board Of Canada funded the documentary, so things do tend to favour what is happening in North America. It is also based on Samantha King’s book, Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy but it is easy to draw parallels between what is occurring overseas and in Australia. Here we’ve seen discussions on The Gruen Transfer about how large corporations recruit these poster-children for corporate causes but the reality is often motivated by more than simple altruism.

In America the “pinkwashing” of brands now means that people can buy pink ribbon handguns and pink-endorsed mustang convertibles. There is the obvious moral questionability about the former while the latter is a bit more subtle. The car is manufactured by Ford, an organisation that has used pollutants and cancer-causing chemicals in its plants. There’s also discussion about the hypocrisy of campaigns like the Yoplait yoghurt pink tub where they were donating to the cause while also using ingredients that were deemed carcinogenic.

The visuals on offer include new and archive footage taken from fundraising walks in America and these are interwoven with thoughtful interviews with people including activists, doctors, researchers, survivors, corporate executives and stage four cancer victims (that’s the final one before death). There is a marked contrast between watching the fundraisers that are styled like an Oprah special with inspirational speakers and celebratory or upbeat music, and the candid interview subjects offering sobering and informative critiques of it all.

The fact is that billions of dollars have been donated to this cause over the years but the incidence of the disease has increased exponentially (from something like 1 in 22 in the 1940s to 1 in 8 today). It shows that this is a complex issue and encourages debate about why most of the money has been poured into treatment while little has been thrown into researching prevention or investigating the cancer’s cause(s).

The stage four cancer sufferers are perhaps the most heart-breaking of all to watch. They have the most bitter pill to swallow because what they have is incurable and yet the prevailing message in the media is that this disease is virtually “normal”. Then there’s the overuse of words like the “fight” or “battle” with the cancer, where the implication is that if you don’t overcome it, you simply weren’t trying hard enough. Plus, there’s another patient who describes the little comfort a pink bear is when you’re faced with such a dire diagnosis.

The fact is that while this film raises legitimate questions, there will be people that dismiss it because in the general scheme of things there are bigger and badder evils then people giving away money to a “good cause”. But that would be ignoring the main takeaway message from this well-argued piece, and that is how essential transparency is. Because this clarity will ensure that marketing is not rated higher than medicine and will make people think before they “pink”. The optimal solution of course, is that they we all will donate straight to researchers and charities rather than increase another corporation’s bottom line.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. presents the unpleasant truths about breast cancer’s pink ribbon without sugarcoating things. It uses articulate interviewees who pose rational arguments and ask the difficult questions about a complicated issue. It is provocative and will leave you with more questions then answers, but ultimately its intelligent and informative approach lifts the veil on this commercialised and corporatised disease. And it will make you realise that things aren’t always pretty in pink.

Review score: 3.5 stars

Originally published on 25 June 2012 at the following website:

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