Running for Pink Ribbons, Inc.

A new documentary takes a hard look at the comforting pink haze surrounding breast cancer research


Alex Brandon/AP

Director Léa Pool couldn’t have asked for a more propitious day for her important documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. to roll out in theatres across Canada. The thought-provoking—and occasionally rage-producing—National Film Board-produced film takes a hard look at how the comforting pink haze marketing surrounding breast cancer research funding has created a culture of complacency that discourages activism and blurs lack of actual progress.

So there’s a nice, if discomfiting, symmetry in today’s events: the film, based on Samantha King’s 2006 book Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, opened on the very day that the major focus of the documentary, Susan G. Komen For the Cure, the world’s biggest breast cancer funding charity, was forced to amend a PR disaster of its own making. It’s a reversal, ironically, that illustrates an animating theme of the movie: the power and importance of public activism. Earlier this week, the Dallas-based foundation, which has raised more than US $1.9 billion for “The Cure” since 1982, announced it was cutting its funding to Planned Parenthood, which provides breast screening for low-income women. The reason, it claimed, was that Planned Parenthood is under investigation by the U.S. Congress, an inquiry incited by anti-abortion advocacy groups and deemed a “Republican witch hunt” by Democratic senator Barbara Boxer. (Planned Parenthood provides abortion in some of its locations, but most of its work is directed to women’s health screening and education.)

Outrage over Komen’s move swept across social media. Donations to Planned Parenthood swelled. Californian senators Boxer and Jackie Speier revoked their support for Komen. The foundation’s own affiliates broke ranks: its Connecticut division pledged to continue funding the New England Planned Parenthood. Komen was pilloried for politicizing women’s health. On Thursday, Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker defended the decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, saying it was due to policy changes intended to improve how grantees are selected—and had nothing to do with Planned Parenthood’s position as an abortion provider. On Friday, Komen’s embattled board reversed its decision. In a statement, Brinker said the foundation did not aim to “specifically penalize Planned Parenthood” and would continue to fund “existing grants.”

Brinker, a former U.S. ambassador who founded Komen in memory of her sister, is a recurring character in Pink Ribbons, Inc. Her voice represents the profit-driven status quo the powerful foundation has been instrumental in creating: a feel-good climate surrounding pink-ribbon “cause marketing” and community-building events like Run for The Cure and the Estee Lauder-sponsored bathing of public monuments (like the Parliament Buildings) in pretty-pink lights every October.

Pool handles the complex, combustible subject masterfully—and subtlely. Without ever denigrating the dignity or intentions of those who participate in fundraising events for The Cure, she adroitly contrasts what Samantha King calls the “tyranny of cheerfulness” required to sell pink-ribbon products with the percolating anger and frustration among doctors, activists, environmental researchers, and breast-cancer patients themselves. “Where is the research money going?” asks writer and social activist, Eleanor Leopold, who points out that the focus is always on how much money is being poured into research, not what is coming out. The lack of coordination amongst researchers globally is another source of frustration, as is the focus of that research, as well as the fact that Komen only spends 24 per cent of income on research. So too is the seeming lack of interest in breast cancer prevention or work with environmental justice groups—which stands in direct opposition to the sources of much of Komen’s funding.

This week’s Planned Parenthood debacle is far from Komen’s first PR misfire. It’s been criticized for allying itself with purveyors of goods that are harmful to women’s heath and the environment, including cosmetics, food products, gasoline. There are even rumours it endorsed a pink handgun. The documentary zooms in on Komen’s alliance with automaker Ford, pointing out that car manufacturing is associated with a higher incidence of breast cancer amongst workers. The foundation’s absurd alliance with  KFC’s “Bucket for the Cure” is also blasted. King suggests that the partnership proves Komen has “lost sight of its vision, which is to see a world without breast cancer”: “the bottom line has become the priority,” she says.  (The documentary didn’t include a more recent Komen misfire: its 2011 launch of a perfume, Promise Me, found to contain a suspected hormone disruptor, a known neurotoxin and an anticoagulant banned for use in human food, and later removed from the market.)

Pink Ribbons, Inc. is both engaging and educative. It’s also a call to arms—to lose the infantilizing, reassuring miasma of pink and become politically active by asking questions and challenging the status quo. Anger can be useful, notes activist Barbara Brener of Breast Cancer Action, if you know how to direct it. It certainly appears an apt response to the growing globalization of “pink,” as Komen expands into new markets  to sell products and “further medicalize women,” as Dr. Susan Love puts it.

Brinker, unsurprisingly, sees no place for anger: “Are we putting a pretty pink face on this? Absolutely, categorically not. When you lead from only anger you do not include or incent people to be part of a mission. If people feel there is no hope, they will not participate long-term.” Or buy pink teddy bears and vacuum cleaners. But, as the film makes clear, Brinker’s hope for the “long term” entails  “managing” breast cancer rather than curing it: “Until we in the breast cancer community have the equivalent of retroviral drugs, until we have ability to treat disease much like diabetes is treated, until we have those evolutions in this disease, there’s not enough pink,” she says.

What we have now is a perfect storm; a situation that is making women see red, not pink. Pool’s movie shows just how much energy—and commitment—both women and men have to marshal into sky-diving, running, walking and even horse-jumping for The Cure. The effectiveness of the campaign protesting Komen’s Planned Parenting announcement funding showed what such energy channeled into activism can achieve.  Expect focus—and pressure—on Komen as a result. Canadians can also direct questions to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, which organizes CIBC Run for the Cure and has raised close to $200 million since its inception in 1986. In 2010, the charity announced an agreement with Komen to “raise funds and explore possibilities to partner in research, education, advocacy and awareness programs.” The exact terms of that arrangement are unclear. The organization has been silent on the Komen’s Planned Parenthood flap and did not respond to Maclean’s phone calls.  And Pink Ribbons, Inc. has only been out a day.

Watch the trailer for Pink Ribbons, Inc. here.

UPDATE: The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation posted a comment about its relationship with the Susan G. Komen foundation on its Facebook page: “In 2009, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation formalized our process for sharing corporate fundraising partners cross-border. For example, if a U.S.-based corporate partner of Komen’s was interested in supporting CBCF in Canada, or vice versa, the agreement outlines how those connections would be made. We in Canada make our own assessment of whether a potential partnership makes sense for us. That is the extent of our formal agreement.” The post makes no mention of its 2010 partnership agreement, which raises the question: If the relationship is an informal one, why send out a press release?


Running for Pink Ribbons, Inc.

  1. I’ll never buy another product or service with a pink ribbon on it.  Full stop.

  2. Many year ago an acquaintance who worked for the Canadian Cancer Foundation at the time had all her amalgam fillings replaced with gold ones; all covered by their gold plated benefits plan.  They were flush with cash thanks to Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo.

    If more people were aware about exactly where the money collected is being spent, they would have second thoughts.  The raw numbers sound impressive but the % actually spent on research has steadily declined over the years.

  3. The level of disinformation in this issue and even in this Macleans article (?!) is astonishing.  Komen is an organization dedicated to finding the cure for breast cancer.  It funds BREAST CANCER RESEARCH.  But Planned Parenthood is almost entirely dedicated to birth control and sexual health issues such as STDs.  Much of the latter’s public relations efforts talks broadly about “breast screenings” but this refers to manual exams, not mammography.   But they do not do cancer RESEARCH.
    The Veritas project’s investigation of Planned Parenthood’s claim to provide “screenings” was unable to identify a single mammogram facility run by the organization.  Many, when called and asked would respond, “I’m sorry, we’re primarily a SURGICAL facility”.  This refers, of course, to the only surgical procedure performed by them:  abortions.  A complete text search of plannedparenthood.org’s website listing all the services provided by all their local branches for the term “mammogram” turns up only thousands of instances of the phrase “mammogram referrals”.Planned Parenthood claims to have performed 800,000 “breast exams” in 2009 and also over 300,000 abortions.  That’s a little over two “exams” per abortion.  But these “exams” are the familiar manual exams similar to the self-exam performed at home.  Comparing the costs, equipment and medical expertise required for abortions to that for performing manual breast exams, it is clear what Planned Parenthood’s relative priorities are between these two services.What planned parenthood does very well, however, is broad social engineering through “education programs” through its clinics and access to public schools, political lobbying (they fund their own powerful PACs in the U.S. which brag about the degree of influence they have over policy makers) and aggressive fundraising from private individuals and “partnerships” with organizations like Kumon.  The funding of Planned Parenthood through Kumen has nothing to do with cancer research.  If for making expensive breast screenings procedures available to women, then this is a case of misrepresentation, misunderstanding or possibly even fraud.

    • In the United States, PP is the primary provider of reproductive health care for women who don’t have insurance (and a good chunk who do)(American Health Journal). One of the ways that they do this is through partnerships with medical facilities. Mammogram machines are EXPENSIVE, hundreds of thousands of dollars each. PP simply can’t afford to put one in each town they serve, or to hire the trained technicians to run them. So, what they do is make an arrangement with a medical screening facility (usually in the same building as the PP office – one of the reasons that PP is usually in medical office buildings). Because most screening facilities won’t take a patient without a doctor’s referral, and won’t do a screening without a doctor to send the results to, PP has a doctor who writes the referral, and a doctor and councillor to help women understand the results. More importantly, PP allows for payment on a sliding scale related to income – if you can’t afford to pay anything, they pay the fees for the tests and the consultation; if you can afford to pay something, they put that towards the cost of the tests and pay the rest. The Komen money was going to pay the salaries of the councillors (cancer councillors, not reproductive councillors) and to pay the fees for those mammograms and ultrasounds. Do you really think these women who were going to PP for these tests are suddenly going to be able to walk into a testing facility and pay this way?

      You’re right in pointing out that it’s not research that PP does, it’s diagnosis. However, that fact does not make the funding misrepresentation, misunderstanding or fraud – Komen spends under 25% of their revenue/funds on research grants. Funding diagnostic tests to facilitate early detection and higher survival rates, as well as education on options for women with breast cancer rates over 35% of their funding (all stats taken from the Komen site).

      I find it ironic that you blast PP for lobbying and political clout when the founder of Komen was an ambassador under Bush, they have several political wives as board members and spend a good chunk (~15%) of their fund-raised money on PAC donations (not part of their mandate). In addition, you seem to be unaware that PP allows for specified donation – if any group or individual specifies where their donation money is to go, it CANNOT be spent on anything else – PP’s yearly audits confirm this. It’s not like PP is taking the Komen money and providing abortions with it. 

  4. “Outrage over Komen’s move swept across social media. Donations to Planned Parenthood swelled. “

    I really, really wish Ms. Kingston would offer both sides of the story rather than skewing it, as this article does.  A lot of congratulation over Komen’s move also swept across social media, and donations to Komen skyrocketed.  Does Ms. Kingston mention this?  No.  Why not?  Take a guess.

    It would also be nice at least to have a mention of the reason why so many were so happy with this initial decision:  many people who are or have loved ones affected by breast cancer are also staunchly opposed to killing children in utero.  These people (myself included) have wanted to donate to Komen for a long time, but could not because we knew our money would be used in part to finance Planned Parenthood’s killing-for-hire.  With this decision we were able to begin donating to Komen.  But then the avid abortion-advocates raised a firestorm, branding Komen’s management team and all supporters of this decision as “woman-haters”.  Nice (but entirely typical).  Instead of standing against the smears, Komen appears to have caved.  As a result, I contacted them yesterday to cancel my first donation which was made the day before.

    And one final point, the California Senator’s name is Barbara Boxer, not “Baxter” as Ms. Kingston repeatedly mislabels her.  Not only is basic fair reporting missing, but basic factual accuracy as well.

    • Hello, 

      Thanks for your note. If you can supply a source re Komen’s donations skyrocketing I would be happy to amend. 

      • Thank you for your reply.  The CEO of Komen, Nancy Brinker, announced a 100% increase in Komen’s donations immediately following the initial announcement.  This has been reported here: 
        http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/02/health/la-he-komen-backlash-20120203 and here
        http://dailycaller.com/2012/02/02/after-cutting-ties-with-planned-parenthood-komen-donations-up-100-percent/  as well as other places.

        At the risk of restating the obvious, please note that even if this relevant item is added, the piece unfortunately remains a skewed portrayal by virtue of
        (a) its focus on the outrage by some toward Komen without even a mention of the widespread support among others,
        (b) its quote of a Democrat Senator that the investigation of Planned Parenthood is a “witch-hunt” without any rebuttal from a supporter of the investigation, and
        (c) its failure to state the actual reason why millions like myself abhor the idea of donating to Planned Parenthood (i.e. the fact that they kill hundreds of thousands of inconvenient unborn children each year in order to make a profit).

        • The post has been updated with a link to Nancy Brinker’s initial defence of the Planned Parenthood funding cut. Thanks for that. In response to your other comments: My article is about the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc.–and the coincidence that it arrived in the midst of a firestorm surrounding the Susan G. Komen foundation. Yes, there was online support for Komen pulling funding from Planned Parenthood (it has been under pressure to do so for years) but it was dwarfed by criticism and anger from Komen’s long-time supporters and affiliates, the public, politicians and medical specialists–which would explain why Komen did an about-face within 24 hours. See: http://techpresident.com/news/21725/what-pinterest-and-twitter-are-doing-activists-out-punish-komen
          Komen has built its (now shaky) brand as a non-partisan player funding a non-partisan disease. Its mandate is to direct funds to the best sources of  breast-cancer screening, education and research. Period. Planned Parenthood (a “non-profit” organization) has helped more than 170,000 low-income women with breast cancer screening and referrals. Sen. Boxer’s quote was intended only to show how politicized the issue has become–just as Pink Ribbons, Inc. reveals how the Susan G. Komen foundation has become a self-promotional global machine more focused on politics, pink products and  publicity than its original mandate.

          • Thank you for adding the additional information. Without proceeding further into the debate, I think this article by Ross Douthat at the NY Times summarizes what I think almost perfectly here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-medias-blinders-on-abortion.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

            To put it bluntly: what you and most journalists view as a controversial mistake by Komen was no more controversial (or mistaken) than their original decision to support the largest abortion provider in North America. And there are just as many who supported their decision to cut PP’s funding as opposed it, judging by poll data on abortion. A good journalist presents these salient facts. I realize your piece was not intended specifically to cover the incident but rather a documentary, but with the incident being the most prominent facet of your piece I think it’s entirely reasonable to expect a fair-minded portrayal of what happened.

            Again, thank you for addressing two of my points, and thank you for engaging in dialogue rather than dismissing criticism – I admire that, however disappointed I am in the overall result.

        • I don’t think you and I are going to agree here, Gaunilon, but it’s incredibly disingenuous to claim that Planned Parenthood “kill[s] hundreds of thousands of inconvenient unborn children each year in order to make a profit.”  First off, PP is a non-profit, so it cannot “profit” from abortion in any meaningful sense.  More importantly, though, PP and its supporters (such as myself) genuinely believe in the importance of being able to choose for oneself whether or not to have an abortion.  No one is promoting abortion because they think it’s a great way to make a buck—if that was the goal, there are much better ways to go about it that don’t put one at risk of public shaming, violence, etc.  

          • PP is a non-profit for tax purposes, which means it cannot distribute its excess windfall (>18 million in 2010) to shareholders. Individuals working at Planned Parenthood (e.g. doctors), however, make a profit by performing abortions. PP performed over 329000 abortions that year, with a charge of $300-950 for first trimester abortions and higher costs for second trimester and late-term abortions. Over the same time period they referred 841 women for adoption. You really believe that ratio represents the best interests of women who walk in the door of a PP clinic as opposed to the relative profit to be made from either “choice”?

            So cut the crap about me being “incredibly disingenuous”. What’s incredibly disingenuous is Planned Parenthood labeling all who oppose it “woman-haters” and being backed up by one-sided media reports.

            “More importantly, though, PP and its supporters (such as myself) genuinely believe in the importance of being able to choose for oneself whether or not to have an abortion.”

            Indeed, I am well aware of what you and your fellow supporters believe. And I am also keenly aware that the rate of violence toward abortion providers is miniscule given that half the population despises what they do, yet they (and you) continue to imply that us “woman-haters” are a violent and pernicious lot. As for public shaming, the idea is absurd on its face. Planned Parenthood is held up by the media as something between a pro-abortion version of Mother Therese and Martin Luther King.

            Abortion is the slaughter of children because they are inconvenient. It’s bad enough that it isn’t prosecuted for what it is: infanticide. It’s worse that to even suggest that one’s charity might be better off not donating to such a cause is branded as “divisive”, “politicizing a health issue”, and due to hatred of women. But that’s our media class for you.

          • Gaunilon, everywhere and in every time abortion has been made illegal – there were still happening though with much more risk to woman and in every case the whole society suffered as a result.  Do you homework and keep your religion to yourself…

  5. Har, breast cancer and their royal pinknessess. Exactly why is this new whine being set up– to increase the unmentioned prejudice agains mens’ cancers?
    Where is the Blue Haze around prostate cancer? Men’s diseases are underresearched and undertreated and underestimated by 4-to-1. Under the circumstances, let’s end the pink haze for 10 years and go forward toward a Blue Haze.

  6. (The documentary didn’t include a more recent Komen misfire: its 2011 launch of a perfume, Promise Me, found to contain a suspected hormone disruptor, a known neurotoxin and an anticoagulant banned for use in human food, and later removed from the market.)That’s because the American Council on Science and Health thoroughly investigated these claims and found them to be “unsubstantiated.” Promise Me was never “found to contain” anything like “a suspected hormone disruptor, a known neurotoxin and an anticoagulant banned for use in human food, and later removed from the market.”In fact, the Breast Cancer Action program manager who wrote the original report based her “sleuthing” on an ingredients monograph that appears on the Shopping Channel website. The suspect ingredient that rated such alarm was coumarin, a naturally occurring and fragrant chemical compound that is toxic to some rodents when fed to them in extremely high concentrations. Humans consume almost as much coumarin from food sources as they do from a single squirt of perfume (about 0.06 mg/kg/day). FDA banned it as a food additive in 1954, because at the time it was known to harm cows who ate it in the field. Coumarin is still used to flavour wines and pipe tobacco, among other products. It was never “removed from the market.”Coumarin is used as a precursor molecule in a number of synthetic anticoagulant pharmaceuticals. Because it’s one ingredient used to synthesize anticoagulants, Breast Cancer Action reported it to be a “powerful anticoagulant” itself, and the rumour was born.
    As for the “suspected hormone disruptor” and “a known neurotoxin,” these are purely speculative on BCA’s part. There is nothing in the ingredients monograph that suggests these are present – but for BCA, the absence of proof is proof itself.I have no dog in this fight, and I’ve always expressed a long-standing beef with the Pink Ribbon Campaign’s fetish for bottom-line results. (You can’t actually Run for the Cure unless you first commit to several thousand dollars in pledges.) But I do wish so-called “responsible” journalists would stop reporting rumour as fact, particularly in areas where they have no specific expertise.

Sign in to comment.