May 30, 2012
by Shawn Bean
© First Run Features
A hard way to start a blog about the corporate greed surrounding breast cancer awareness and the pink-ification of America is to look two cancer survivors in the eye.
Walking out of my office earlier today, I ran into Erin Zammett Ruddy, who beat back chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) and has since started a family, which provides plenty of content for her Mom Without A Filter blog. Erin was in Parenting’s offices to discuss a big feature story she’s writing for us. Standing next to Erin was the executive editor who assigned her the story, mom of three and breast cancer survivor Stephanie Wood. There we were, three of us in the hallway, chatting about kids and laundry. What they didn’t know was I was heading back to my office to blog about the moneymaking machine behind cancer awareness. To blog about Pink Ribbons, Inc., the new documentary that hits theaters this Friday, June 1st. It’s a film that calls out “the commercialization of the breast cancer movement” and its “exploitation of human generosity, hope and trust.” But walking away from Erin and Stephanie, I felt Judas-ish, Benedict Arnold-y, Enron-esque. But that doesn’t change the story of Charlotte Haley, one of the central characters in Pink Ribbons, Inc.
Charlotte, who’d seen her grandmother, sister and daughter battle breast cancer, made (peach- or salmon-colored, depending on who you ask) ribbons with an accompanying card: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.” Self magazine got wind of Charlotte’s work. So did Estee Lauder. We’ll help promote the ribbons, they said. Charlotte’s response: No thanks. Too commercial.
But the corporate entities weren’t done. They wanted that ribbon. The lawyers had a simple solution: change the color.
That’s how we ended up with Susan G. Komen, Estee Lauder, eBay, Avon, Forever 21, Amazon, Cuisinart, KitchenAid, and countless other companies and organizations dipping their tanktops, makeup cases and housewares in pink. These companies make millions (and millions and millions) on pink merchandise. Cancer research gets its share, but the movie asks: is the halo effect that the company experiences the real motivator? According to the website Think Before You Pink, research conducted by public relations firm Cone Communications discovered that “given the same cost and quality, more than half of consumers would switch from a particular store or brand to one associated with a good cause.” Boom. Add pink to a food processor, and people are more likely to buy it. It makes them feel like their pesto is saving lives.
Pink Ribbons, Inc. is directed by a woman, stars women, and centers around a women’s health issue. So what the hell am I doing here? Who the hell am I to criticize? And while we're at it, why are all these male-centric organizations in the pink business? Major League Baseball players hitting with pink bats. NFL wide receivers catching balls with pink gloves. Reebok’s pink Zigsonic running shoes. Pink camouflage hunting caps.
I have to admit: writing this blog is a little unnerving. Men have not fared well in recent months when discussing women’s issues like contraception and stay-at-home moms. There’s something invasive about it. Mind your business. This is our territory. But guys can and should be a part of this discussion. These are our wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts. These are the people who helped make us husbands, fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and uncles. From baseball players to football players to regular guys like me, we all have skin in this game.
Before leaving work today, I ran into Parenting’s senior editor Debbie Skolnik. A great writer, a damn funny woman, and a breast cancer survivor. When I spoke to Brandy about my day, I told about my blog, and the serendipitous encounters. She told me that only a few days ago, a family friend underwent a double mastectomy.
For me, Debbie, Stephanie and Erin are the pink streaks in the T-shirt, the pink sticker on the car bumper.
According to the American Cancer Society, the chance of a woman having breast cancer some time during her life is a little less than 1 in 8. Less than 1 in 8. That means we may not need a pink ribbon after all, because we all know a pink ribbon personally. When it comes to awareness, let’s first become aware of the 1 in 8 in our lives. After that, feel free to buy the pink blender. (Yes, it really does exist.)