Of Pink Ribbons and Philanthropy

In this month’s column (on corporate power) Michael Barker addresses the commercialisation of the breast cancer movement which, as highlighted in Samantha King’s recent book ‘Pink Ribbons, Inc’, has turned a personal tragedy into a “market-driven industry of survivorship”.

By Michael Barker

April 3, 2010

Ceasefire Magazine

Breast cancer is a critical issue and as such its causes need to be understood so that its toxic legacy can be laid to rest. Yet just as American women came out onto the streets to give voice to their discontent at Richard Nixon’s so-called ‘War on Cancer’, corporations responded in kind, seeking to force them back into quietude. Samantha King’s book Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) consequently fulfills a vital role for all concerned citizens wishing to understand how corporate philanthropy — ostensibly in the service of cancer activism — has “helped fashion a far-reaching constriction of public life, of the meaning of citizenship and political action, and of notions of responsibility and generosity.”[1]

Consumption of “pink ribbon” merchandise has in many ways come to replace meaningful political engagement with the root causes of cancer. Feel-good celebration of survivorship in turn replaces righteous and much-needed politically targeted anger.

Money talks… and funding agencies (both nonprofit and for-profit) have exhibited a rather worrying, but entirely understandable, fixation on supporting “research that focuses on screening and treatment rather than prevention.”[2] With the terms of the funding debate for the Breast Cancer Movement adequately constricted, corporations have strived to undermine any effective grassroots political organizing that was taking place, overwhelming it with…

… an informal alliance of large corporations (particularly pharmaceutical companies, mammography equipment manufacturers, and cosmetics producers), major cancer charities, the state, and the media… National Breast Cancer Awareness Month  (NBCAM), founded in 1985 by Zeneca (now AstraZeneca), a multinational pharmaceutical corporation and then subsidiary of Imperial Chemical Industries, is possibly the most highly visible and familiar manifestation of this alliance. AstraZeneca is the manufacturer of tamoxifen, the best-selling breast cancer drug, and until corporate reorganization in 2000 was under the auspices of Imperial Chemical, a leading producer of the carcinogenic herbicide acetochlor, as well as numerous chlorine and petroleum-based products that have been linked to breast cancer. (pp.xx-xxi)

In the form of strategic philanthropy, corporations have at their hands a highly sophisticated tool of social engineering. Rather than such corporate giving being a process that is deemed marginal to the business cycle, it is evident that this “highly calculated, measured, quantified, and planned approach to giving or ‘charitable investing’” has moved center-place into the profit-making nexus. In league with these philanthropic developments, grassroots political organising is apparently out, but “grassroots participation” is in vogue — “grassroots participation” being a “term increasingly used to describe individual consumption-based acts of philanthropy…”[3]