Sexy Breast-Cancer Ads: Provocative or Patronizing?

October is breast-cancer-awareness month, and already the country is awash in various shades of pink. But some groups have taken a more direct approach to promoting breast-cancer awareness: namely, by making us all aware of breasts. Big, bouncing, half-naked breasts.

While breasts can be sexy, breast cancer is a serious, sometimes deadly disease. And younger activists hoping to draw attention to the issue and recruit younger donors are not above using sex—along with viral video, catchy slogans, and stylish T shirts—to promote breast-cancer awareness. But are ads that play up the desirability of full breasts in a string bikini sensitive to cancer patients with mastectomy scars? And will messages based on objectifying women do more good than harm in the long run?

Ad campaigns like "Save Second Base" and "Save the Ta Tas" are an increasingly popular way to draw attention to breast-cancer charities; both organizations feature T shirts that call attention to the wearer's breasts. (Save Second Base, for instance, features two prominently placed baseballs.)

The most recent example of sexy breast-cancer ads is perhaps the most extreme: the much-forwarded viral video from a Toronto-based breast-cancer charity advertising an event called The Booby Ball. In the video, MTV Canada DJ Aliya-Jasmine Sovan walks across the screen in a small white bikini, drawing lecherous stares from everyone at the pool party—including a cadre of dancing gay sailors and elderly, flat-chested women.

The ad, created by Sovan and the event's cofounders, Ashleigh Dempster and Amanda Blakely, was designed to advertise not only their annual fundraiser but the BIG grant, which helps support fundraising initiatives by young breast-cancer survivors throughout Canada. The goal was to create an ad targeting youth that would spread virally, getting the message out to the entire country.

"It's inspiring dialogue and awareness, and I don't think there's anything demeaning about that," says Blakely. "Yes, it's a racy ad, but that's what we had to do to get [young people] to pay attention."

In a nation that still has plenty of issues regarding sex and sexuality, using slang and humor to talk about breast cancer is one way to make the conversation easier. On one hand, cute slogans and sex appeal make talking about breast cancer less of a drag, and encourage youth support. Calling breasts "tatas" can seem sly and subversive, while showing a set of double D's will garner more attention then talking about radiation and chemo. You could argue that this approach shows resilience and humor, and allows those who might be intimidated or afraid of a serious disease to enter the conversation.

On the other hand, breast cancer is a serious disease. "I think it is such a mistake to think that we have to dress up cancer into something prettier than it really is to get people to think about it," says Kairol Rosenthal, author of Everything Changes: The Insider Guide to Cancer in Your 20s. "You can be fun, creative, and a little bit sexy, but it has to involve the impact of the disease so that there's a call to action." Otherwise, it's all sex and no substance.

Still, the somewhat snarky approach to cancer awareness is a predominant trend among young survivors and activists, and the attitude extends beyond breast cancer. The blog I've Still Got Both My Nuts discussed testicular cancer, while "save the hooch" is a popular phrase among cervical-cancer activists. For many young cancer patients, the idea is that the rules of traditional cancer communities—communities that exclude young cancer survivors—don't apply.

"Edgy, provocative, counterculture ads really show the cognitive dissonance of the youth culture, which is really rebelling against the fact that we have no voice in cancer," says Matthew Zachary, the founder and CEO of I'm Too Young for This, an outreach organization for people with cancer. "There's no research for young adults, no epidemiology for young adults, and none of the billions of dollars for cancer research goes to young-adult cancer." Being funny, rebellious, and over the top is a way for young cancer advocates to stake out their territory.

Of course, there's not much that's edgy and innovative about using breasts to sell a product, and there are no ads for testicular cancer that focus in on a bulging pair of briefs; there are no boxer shorts begging to "save the prostate!" Campaigns that focus on the sexiness of breasts have the unintended effect of designating those breasts—not the women to whom they belong—as most worthy of saving. They play up the notion of breasts as hypnotic, erotic, objects of desire: cold comfort for breast-cancer survivors who are alive, healthy, but breastless.

And while the video was a viral success—it was featured on Best Week Ever and; it has racked up almost 350,000 hits on YouTube; and, according to Blakely and Dempster, it has elicited e-mails from all over the world—how many of the viewers are talking about breast cancer, and how many are going to remember the breasts?

"Guys are going to remember the boobs, but are they going to remember what the cause is?" asks Rosenthal. "This video doesn't have to do with the realities of cancer, especially the cancer of a young woman. It's a slap on the face to women who are young and have mastectomies, who can't strut around in a string bikini or get a date because they're bald."

Cancer survivors aren't the only people who suffer when ads objectify women, says Jeanne Kilbourn, founder of the Killing Us Softly series of videos. "The flip side of the adoration of the sexy young woman is contempt for women who don't look like that, which is to say all of us," she says. Kilbourn notes that research on nudity in ads finds that people are more likely to remember nudity than the product, and notes a correlation between ads that objectify women and violence against women.

But these are hardly the first ads to use women to sell a product, and scrutinizing breast-cancer ads for sexism creates an unfair double standard, says Dennis Durbin, an associate professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at USC. "While the ad does push the boundaries a bit for a serious subject, note that beautiful women displaying large breasts are used to advertise everything from beer to cars," he says. The ads are a welcome contrast both to traditional ads that use sex, like beer ads, and to traditional perceptions of women with breast cancer, who were once seen as diseased and unworthy. "This ad takes women's breasts back from being an object to sell products to being a symbol of beauty and life, something worth protecting."

Activist Zachary is more succinct. "I'm happy to see women being objectified in a way that's for the intention of public good, instead of exploitation for selling products and merchandise for things people don't need," he says.

But is it good for the public? Do ads like this help us talk more about breast cancer—or do they just re-create false ideals about the role of breasts in society? Would we see women with breast cancer as untouchable if we didn't place so much emphasis on breasts as sex objects? Could we discuss the disease without having to use clever nicknames if breasts weren't seen as just a juvenile thrill?

"We have this culture that is obsessed with breasts in a way that is ridiculous in the rest of the world, but we don't allow breast-feeding in public," says Kilbourn, who notes that an emphasis on breasts as sex objects prevents us from talking about anything else—whether it's breast-feeding or breast cancer. "These ads don't have anything to do with real women and real breasts."

Sexy Breast-Cancer Ads: Provocative or Patronizing? | News