Last week, when people logged into their Facebook feed, they found themselves confronted by titillating and occasionally creepy disclosures on female friends’ status updates: “I like it on the floor” was popular. And many children got to read mom admitting: “I like it hanging from the bedpost.” It soon emerged that the “it” in the innuendo-laden meme referred to where the women liked to put their purses, and that the whole thing was an incongruous stealth campaign to raise breast cancer awareness. Last year’s version was a “What colour is your bra?” campaign—which also made headlines, though it was nominally more connected to the cause.
Proponents of the viral crusade argue that a breast cancer awareness campaign that gets attention without mentioning the disease is ingenious. Perhaps, but it highlights the provocative sexualized pulse of the new breast cancer awareness campaigns targeted at women under 40—and more than a few men. The cheeky tone is evident in Feel Your Boobies, a U.S. foundation started by Leigh Hurst, who had a breast cancer diagnosis at age 33, and the “boob lube” soap sold on savethetatas.com. “I (heart) boobies” rubber bracelets sold by San Diego-based Keep a Breast are considered so risqué many U.S. school boards banned them. Michelle Murray, a member of the organization’s board who lives in Sudbury, Ont., can’t keep the five-dollar items in stock: “Even my dad wears one.”
The “think pink” of breast cancer awareness has lately been replaced by this more winking, sexy perspective, led by Rethink Breast Cancer, a Toronto-based charity famed for its “Save the Boobs” video. The spot, which aired last year to promote the annual “Boobyball” fundraiser, featured the MTV host Aliya-Jasmine Sovani strutting around a swimming pool in a bikini, the camera trained on her bouncing breasts, men around her reduced to slack-jawed wonder. “You like them,” read the subtitles. “Now it’s time to save the boobs.” “Breast cancer,” it added, “is the leading cause of cancer deaths in young women 29 to 40.” It became a viral sensation, broadcast on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The View.
Rethink, founded in 2001, knows how to press cultural hot buttons. Its “Cam Exam” video, starring a 17-year-old boy offering to perform breast exams, and its “Man boobs,” showing a man with mammaries in an enthralled daze (tagline: “Appreciate your breasts as much as men do”), won it kudos as “one of Canada’s Top 10 Marketers” by Marketing magazine.
Alison Gordon, Rethink’s VP of marketing, says the under-40 female market is tough to reach: “Everybody wants it.” So they’ve colonized new turf. “Breast cancer culture is very homogenous: pink ribbons, teddy bears,” she says. “We’re young women who love music and art. How can we make it relevant?” Thus was born boobywall.ca, a gallery where women can upload images of their breasts, naked or clothed. More than 9,000 have done so since the site was launched in 2008. Among them: “Penelope, diagnosed in 2005 at age 32 with stage 3 breast cancer.”
Part of what some champion as edgy is women reclaiming imagery that would be vilified in a beer ad. Yet despite Booby Wall’s disclaimer—“This is not spring break, this is not Maxim”—there are oglers among the site’s more than five million visitors, as Gordon concedes: “Not everyone is there to learn about breast cancer.”
“Booby awareness” does offer the perfect storm of cause-related messaging and ideal target demographic. More women die of lung cancer and heart disease. But breasts sell, young breasts most of all.
Critics of “booby” campaigns argue they reduce the fight against breast cancer to the fight to save breasts, and sexualize a devastating disease, with the breast cancer message getting lost in the joke. “It’s just another marketing tool,” says Carol Secter, of Montreal’s Breast Cancer Action, which made headlines last week when it urged people to donate directly to research rather than buy “pink ribbon” products. Secter wants focus on prevention, not vague “awareness”: “We’re all aware breast cancer exists.”
But Eileen Rakovitch, a doctor in the radiation oncology department at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, says the message may be worth the medium. Young women can be unaware breast cancer is the most common cancer in young adults—and the leading cause of cancer death, being more aggressive and often detected later than in older women. They tune out traditional messaging—“the masectomized women or the woman with no hair,” she says. “A 22-year-old is going to say, ‘That’s not me, that’s my mother or my grandmother.’ ” Rakovitch believes provocative approaches have merit: “If this type of campaign makes a young woman say, ‘Oh, I can totally get it at this age,’ and it makes her or her boyfriend more aware, then it has accomplished a greater good.”
Yet Rethink’s Gordon admits that the cultural obsession with breasts as a prized part of female identity creates a dilemma. “Body image is a huge issue for young women who’ve experienced breast cancer,” she says. Rethink grapples with tone, she says: “The litmus test is speaking to young women who’ve lost their breasts. But so often they love the videos; they understand you’re not supposed to take these things literally.” Of course, if the imagery wasn’t so literal, no one would be paying attention.
Save the boobs:
Men with breasts:
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.