Pink Ribbon Blues is pleased to share an essay by friend and filmmaker, Ronnie Hughes. Ronnie is the partner of Sarah Horton, author of ‘Being Sarah’ and a contributor to the Pink Ribbon Blues Blog. Together, in Britain, Ronnie and Sarah have run their social enterprise ‘a sense of place’ for nearly seventeen years. They’ve also spent the past five years in cancerland, as Ronnie has cared for Sarah throughout her treatments for breast cancer.
Ronnie graduated from Liverpool University with a degree in Sociology, and then spent twenty years working in social housing. A place he has never really left. ‘If you get born, the least we grown-ups can do is provide you with a home. A decent shelter to build your life around,’ he says.
Over the last year, Ronnie has become increasingly involved in his partner Sarah’s blog, co-editing and contributing articles, about his role as a care-giver, but also around his particular enthusiasms of walking, running, music and his beloved Liverpool. Of late, Ronnie has been intrigued by the growing critique of pink ribbon culture and industry in the United States, a topic gaining worldwide attention particularly with regard to the most recent missteps of the largest breast cancer charity in the world, Susan G. Komen for the Cure. With a wicked sense of humor, Ronnie writes about Komen’s damaged reputation. Published simultaneously on Being Sarah, here is Ronnie Hughes’s satirical comment, “Has Komen ‘Lost the Brand’?
A tongue in cheek guest post here from Ronnie, a born satirist. The thinking being that satire might be able to get to the heart of a serious matter, in a way that more straightforward social critiques sometimes don’t.
First, a word of explanation may be necessary for our readers not based in the United States. ‘Komen’ in this post is ‘Susan G. Komen for the Cure’ - the most widely known, largest and best-funded breast cancer organization in the United States, but one that has been criticized for its use of donor funds, as well as its choice of sponsor affiliations and its role in commercial cause marketing. In early 2012 Komen took a controversial decision to cut its funding of Planned Parenthood, a decision widely seen as politically biased and revealing Komen’s close association with the Republican Party. The decision was reversed within a few days, but the damage to Komen’s reputation is considered by many to be serious, permanent and possibly final.
Over here in Liverpool, I’d heard of Komen, of course. But my interest was particularly piqued when a British newspaper, The Guardian, started reporting in detail on the Planned Parenthood issue, quoting our friend Gayle Sulik, talking about pink culture organisations in general, and Komen and its recent difficulties in particular:
‘Komen is the largest and is held up as the gold standard. But it is just part of it,’ she said. ‘There’s the conflict of interest, with regard to the companies associated with pharma and diagnostic tools, who stand to benefit from treatment. Then ‘pinkwash’, where products might be carcinogenic, to unhealthy products like M&Ms. I’ve even heard of Pub Crawls for the Cure. It’s part of the general culture.’Gayle Sulik, sociologist and author of ‘Pink Ribbon Blues’, said pinkwashing is only the beginning of how ‘breast cancer culture’ undermines women’s health. Sulik, a researcher at the University at Albany Department of Women’s Studies said that the culture has caused a split in advocacy groups between those focussed on awareness and education, like Komen, and others.
‘Komen is under investigation by the public. So far I don’t see the public being very forgiving. There is so much product placement, so many huge events,’ said Sulik. ‘It will be interesting to see what happens next.’
So then, on with our tale. Let’s see what might have happened next…
The place: ‘Susan G. Komen for the Cure’ Boardroom, Dallas, Texas
The time: Someday soon
Present are Nancy Brinker and all the Senior Team and Board members of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
It’s a big day for the world’s biggest breast cancer charity. Due to their own recent actions, the organisation seems to be imploding, losing support at all levels of society, all across the USA. And even media commentators in other countries have noticed. In fact the ‘brand’ seems seriously damaged. And for a big nonprofit corporation like Susan G. Komen for the Cure, this is serious.
Nancy and the team have been asking around quietly for a new ‘brand advisor’ – someone who can help them get the Komen brand through this sticky patch. One mysterious name keeps coming back, from all their reliable contacts. ‘Get the Spirit of Apple, he’s the one you need’. They reasoned, ‘What have we got to lose? He’s the charismatic leader who brought Apple back from the brink. Light some candles! If he comes in and talks a pile of spiritual, hippy nonsense, we can just ignore him and find someone else who’ll tell us what we’d like to hear!’
They sit and wait. Candles slowly melt, filling the boardroom with a smoky, waxy aroma mingled with the fragrance of Promise Me perfume. You really can smell the pink.
The door opens slowly… Steve Jobs saunters in. Black polo shirt, jeans, painfully thin, it’s really him. Only slightly more ethereal than he was in real life.
‘Surprised to see me? I’ll bet you are. Don’t worry, I won’t bite. I really am dead. Not the walking dead that eats human brains though. Only joking!
I’m the ‘Spirit of Apple.’ What you see here is a one-day-only special appearance. Since my demise I’ve found that I can still be a good advisor. I helped found and revive Apple, after all. The most respected brand on Earth. So I know a bit about brands, And I can help worthwhile organizations that have screwed their’s up. Like you.
So then…I believe you want some advice from me about how to get your brand out of the mess you’ve gotten it into?’
Stunned, they offer Steve a chair, he is looking terribly pale. But he declines and begins reminiscing, pacing restlessly round the room.
‘You know, this reminds me of the time one of our teams at Apple screwed up on the launch of ‘Mobile Me’. Yeah? I see some of you had it, paid good money for it. Well, I’m truly sorry. What a crock that was? They’d let me get up there at the Moscone Center that year and launch it with all my usual, well, nerve – and it just sucked when people got it home. It was supposed to be the center of your ‘digital hub’ and, well, it was a mess. It was supposed to ‘just work’. It didn’t. It just sucked.
I got the whole team together and gave them hell. Asked them how ashamed they were to have let down Apple, our brand, our reputation so badly? Blamed myself a bit. I’d been off with Jonny Ive working on the iPhone, the iPad, and other things you haven’t even seen yet. So I sacked some of them on the spot and made ‘Mobile Me’ work, kind of, in the end. With a new team.
But get this, and let’s just say this quietly between ourselves. Apple’s products are only stuff. Great stuff. Stuff that makes life better for a lot of people. We put ‘a ding in the universe’ with our fancy techie stuff. But it’s still only stuff. It’s not life and death.
But you? You set yourselves up to deal in life, death, and dreams. Good people’s dreams of their own, and their loved ones futures ‘after cancer’. Millions trusted you with their dreams. And they raised millions, nay billions, for you. Because they believed in you and what you promised you would do.
And you’ve done good work. You got people’s attention. Brought people together. Raised a lot of money that could go toward important things. I know there are people around who say you never did much on prevention. True. You got that screening mammogram thing messed up. Mistook early detection for prevention. Science just wasn’t your thing, was it? For awhile, marketing was. But you got too big. Sometimes you have to get big to make big changes. Look at Apple. But you allowed Nancy’s career aspirations take over your mission. You took the “cause career” to a whole new level, and not in a good way. If you achieved your mission, a lot of people would be out of jobs. There’d be no cancer industry. So, you decided not to even go for your supposed ‘Cure’ didn’t you? Right? Be honest. I mean, how can you be for a ‘Cure’ when you continue to cut your research budget every year? So you ditched your core mission.
If that wasn’t bad enough, look what else you’ve gone and done? You’ve moved into politics. From what I understand, politics was always too close at hand. Your political contributions, stock portfolios, seats on the boards of directors of companies that make money from cancer diagnosis and treatment. You never told the public about these things. You hid them. Shame on you!
Then there’s the lobbying. Sure, lobbying’s one thing that’s part of the job of an advocacy organization. Advocacy. Putting the people you serve first. Changing the conditions that affect them for the better. Advocacy’s not political. Or it shouldn’t be. But the whole Planned Parenthood thing? So calculated. Inappropriate. Acting out of outright, partisan, political preference. WTF were you guys thinking?
Get this, cancer is not right wing or left wing. It doesn’t discriminate based on political affiliation. I didn’t die of ‘democrat-supporter’ cancer. I was simply diagnosed with MY cancer and went looking for all the help I could get to continue to live. Like the millions of mostly women with breast cancer who come to you for help. Or used to come to you. From what I see in the papers, how much you helped is questionable. But regardless, more and more of your supporters are walking away now. Racing for a different cure. One that isn’t all mucked up in partisan politics and financial motivations. So your brand is in trouble. Your Races for the Cure, your bloodline, is curdling. You know this is true, or you wouldn’t be sitting here talking to a dead guy!
Well, this dead guy thinks you’ve had this coming for a long time. Knowing I’d be seeing you today I’ve had a look back through all the stuff about you. Yes, your own stuff, sure. Your annual reports, public speeches, and high profile initiatives. But also the stuff that others have been noticing about you for a long time. A really long time. A lot of people have suspected for years that you were not what you appeared to be. That you were instead what you’ve recently revealed yourselves to be. That you’ve been merely masking your true corporate, right-wing, Republican interests, behind the image of a passionate, worthwhile, supporter of all women charity.
Well, let me take you through what I’ve found.’
‘Have you heard of KomenWatch? Because you should’ve. It’s an archive of the many allegations against you in the last two decades. And there are a lot of them. Substantiated investigations. Letters to editors. News articles. Books from well-known researchers and cancer patients. I’ll quote from a recent KomenWatch editorial:
‘Investigations into Komen’s activities suggest that the growing aversion to the organization’s approach to breast cancer support and awareness may be more than simply a matter of personal taste. In 2003, with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Mary Ann Swissler examined Komen’s corporate and political ties and their influence on the direction of the Foundation. Komen’s literature did not reveal the lobbying ties, stock interests, seats on boards of private cancer treatment corporations, or the political activism of its key leaders, including Nancy Brinker herself. Yet Komen’s “stock portfolios and cozy relationships with Republican leadership” not only set them apart, their ties to cancer-related industry affected the organization’s objectivity and credibility.
In the years that followed Swissler’s exposé the Komen organization was taken to task repeatedly, though sporadically, about how its political affiliations, high media profile, bureaucratic structure, corporate partnerships, industry ties, and market-based logic had led to questionable decisions.
In 2004 Breast Cancer Action tried to raise the public’s awareness that no one even knew how much money was being raised and spent in the name of breast cancer as awareness gave way to industry. Now in 2012, Reuters reports that critics within the philanthropic and research communities have also raised questions about Komen’s scientific approach and funding allocations, and The Washington Post rightly points out that Komen is part of a larger breast cancer culture that emphasizes “optics over integrity, crass commercialism and the infantilization of the female experience into something fashionable, cheerful or sexy.”
Komen’s recent decision to change granting criteria in a way that would preclude the women’s health network, Planned Parenthood, from applying for grants to offset the cost of providing screenings to low-income women, is the latest in a series of moves to prioritize Komen’s brand.’
‘So, what does that all amount to?
In the last few weeks Susan G. Komen for the Cure has been brutally exposed. You all know that. The rest of us have watched and listened as journalists, health advocates, philanthropists, bloggers, affiliates, Komen supporters, and countless others have shined a light on the obvious: ‘The Komen foundation - breast cancer charity turned nonprofit corporation – is a juggernaut in the fight against breast cancer.’ Yes, Komen Watch again, from a piece called ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’. It’s all of you here they’re talking about.
That and all the press and media stuff I mentioned earlier on adds up to some heavy duty brand damage.
So you asked me here thinking you only might have damaged your brand. Thinking I might be able to help you fix it. Well, I can’t. No one could. So listen carefully to what I’m going to tell you…’
Everyone shifts nervously in their seats. The atmosphere in the room turns to ice.
‘You are a charity. And a charity is based on trust. And you haven’t merely lost that trust. You have betrayed it. In this PlannedParenthood debacle you have revealed your core beliefs. That some women are more worthy of your help than others. And that you are more interested in lining your pink coffers with green dollars than achieving your mission. And so now? The people aren’t going to trust you, ever again.
Your brand is not damaged, it’s cracked and broken beyond repair.
Think about it. If your company actually made ‘stuff’ who would buy it now? No one. No one would trust it to work. And your assets would be sold off to the highest bidder. Then you could all dust yourselves down, walk away and say ‘Hey, it’s just business, some of them fail’.
But here’s the problem. Even though you think you are, you’re not a straight forward business venture. Your’s is not a failure, but a betrayal. You weren’t dealing in ‘stuff’. You were dealing in dreams and futures. You were dealing in lives – and now you’ve lost the brand because you are not fit to stand for the things you claimed for the last thirty years you stood for. Shame on you, all of you. And what most concerns me here is the millions of women and their families who used to trust you. Good people.
Who, of all of them, could possibly believe now that ‘the cure’ for breast cancer is coming from anywhere around here? Who could believe, based on your actions and lies, that their mothers, sisters or daughters are going to be protected from breast cancer by anything you do?
You are all the clichés you never thought you’d hear about yourselves. You are a ‘busted flush’, a ‘spent force’. You are ‘dead to me’. The only valuable thing you have is your mailing list. Well yes, that and the money too. And your mailing lists, your assets, your money, need to go somewhere new, somewhere truly charitable.
The trust of all those you betrayed needs somewhere trustworthy to go. Because we do need a mass movement, you got that part right. But we need it to lobby for good science. For research into prevention, early treatment, metastatic treatment, for this breast cancer epidemic that you have been trading on for three decades to be properly investigated. And to be over.
We need to talk big, dream big here. We need a new ‘ding in the universe’. And it’s not going to come from you. This mass movement to end breast cancer will have nothing to do with you. You’ll not even be a part of it. You are toxic. An impediment. A juggernaut going nowhere. A juggernaut in everyone else’s way.
So listen, do what’s right here, take the steps you know are right. And then get out of the way. There’s important work to be done. As I say, we need a new ding in the universe, and after all the bad things you’ve done, you can at least help that to happen by doing some simple, honest good things.
So, who you gonna call? Good people, for a start, who people trust? National Breast Cancer Coalition, Army of Women, Breast Cancer Action, Breast Cancer Fund, Metavivor, SHARE And all those community organizations you have tried to squeeze out to secure your place in the public’s eye and wallet. And some of those bloggers out there. These women are writing for their lives and their sisters’ lives. You owe it to them. Give them what you have and then get out of the way!’
And here the image of ‘Steve’ gently disappears.
‘Well, what was all that?’ says Nancy, looking round the room at the stunned faces.
Minutes of reflective silence ensue. There are, after all, good people in this room.
Then, Nancy again, ‘But you know what, he was right.’ Looking round at mostly nods, some tearful. ‘Let’s get on the phones to those people he mentioned, get the papers drawn up, get this one last thing done. There are women with breast cancer out there, in need.
It’s what my sister would have wanted.’
The presence of the character ‘Steve Jobs’ in this post, reflects Ronnie and Sarah’s long-time use of Apple’s products. ‘People might be seeing them as a bit too big and too successful now’ Ronnie says, ‘But for most of the many years we used their stuff, particularly when we started making our films about twelve years ago, most people viewed us as simply odd. Well, odd I may be, but at least it helped me get ‘into role’ for this post’.