Another Color of Money

‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.’ looks at the pervasive use of breast cancer as a marketing tool


Participants in a 2010 breast cancer awareness walk in San Francisco are among the subjects featured in “Pink Ribbons, Inc.”

The pink ribbon is one of the most recognizable symbols in marketing today — and one of the most profitable. The commercialization of breast cancer is the subject of the new documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc.,” which opens locally Friday. Inspired by the book of the same name, the film examines how the pink ribbon became a symbol for millions of women fighting breast cancer, and how it’s used today to manipulate women into buying things they don’t need — and which might actually harm them.

The film argues that the symbol adds a veneer of cuddliness to a brutal, horrific disease. “It’s very easy to pull at the heartstrings when talking about breast cancer,” says Ravida Din, the film’s producer. “It’s about femininity, motherhood, things you can get behind. It all becomes tied up in terms of women’s image and identity.”

That makes it easy for companies to align themselves with breast cancer prevention. Because mostly women get the disease and women make most of the buying decisions for a household, companies have a ready-made target audience to whom to sell pink-ribboned yogurt, lipstick, toilet paper and even handguns. Din thinks there is some altruism in this type of marketing-based fundraising, but she has doubts about the motives behind some ribbon-bearing merchandise.

“What becomes insidious about the level of enrollment is there’s no integrity when companies make pink handguns or alcohol,” says Din. “Those types of examples are all about profit.”

Din and Lea Pool, the film’s director, say they were concerned about how women for whom the pink ribbon is an inspiring symbol would take the movie, particularly those women who do breast cancer awareness walks.

“I always wanted to respect the women who are walking,” says Pool. After seeing the film, “some of the women who do the walk, they said, ‘What can we do now?’ They understand we have to be more proactive and educated about this issue. [Our goal was to get the walkers] asking more: Where is this money going? Why is there a lack of progress? Why are there so many gaps in the research? Just how can we do better?”

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Kristen Page-Kirby · June 7, 2012