October 02, 2023

Using Sex to Sell Breast Cancer?


If my sexual history came with a transcript, you could read that I am anything but a prude.  So in my interview today with Newsweek, why am I so down on the ‘Save the Boobs’ ad campaign that consists exclusively of Canadian MTV host Aliya-Jasmine Sovani (a non-breast cancer patient) strutting her bouncy stuff in a string bikini with the message ‘you know you love them, now save them’?

Supporters of the ad say that being snarky, rebellious, and over the top is how we stake out the territory of the young adult cancer message. But what happens when there is actually no message?  This ad is about breasts.  Not about cancer.  So, are we reverting back to avoiding the C-word because we think it’s too grim to sell our own cause?  Is my cancer just too un-hip, un-revolutionary, un-cool for my peers?  I don’t think so.

What if we keep the gorgeous colors and sensual suspense of the ad, but saw a hottie in a bikini walking only in profile, and when she turns to face forward, we get the lopsided view of her as a breastless young woman with a mastectomy? It would be a racy, educational ad, with a message about why we need breast cancer research funding for young women.

Using sex to sell cancer instead of beer or cars isn’t a brilliant revolutionary branding tactic.  It’s an obvious, easy ad campaign that misrepresents the reality of cancer, and is a slap in the face to men by assuming the only way they can be empathetic to women in pain is by getting off on her breasts.

The ad has received 350,000 You Tube hits.  I suspect the majority of views are replays from guys pleasuring themselves in front of their laptops who still don’t remember what the ad is for; who would likely never flirt with a bald girl in a bar; and who still hope to crawl into bed with Aliya-Jasmine and have no clue that real, 160 pound, size A-cup, 25-year-olds are walking around with prosthetic “ta-tas.”

What do you think?  Do you like the ad?  Is it revolutionary to sell cancer with sex?  Do you know someone with breast cancer and do you feel proud of them when you watch this ad?

Read more about the real lives of young women with breast cancer in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. JBBC Says:
    October 2nd, 2009 at 3:57 PM

    Well done Kairol on voicing what for many of us breast cancer survivors is a very uncomfortable feeling we get when we see an ad like this - especially for those of us who may have issues around our changed bodies after surgery for breast cancer. Thank you for highlighting this in your usual excellent way.

  2. Dawn Says:
    October 2nd, 2009 at 4:41 PM

    I’m all for using creative and sometimes shocking marketing tactics to get a good point across. However, you are so right in this case I don’t think the cancer message was successfully conveyed. It reminded me too much of a cheesy beer commercial. Personally I would like to see a cancer awareness campaign similar to the Dove Real Women/Real Beauty campaign and not only highlight breast cancer. I wish they would show that cancer survivors are still beautiful, still contributing members of society, still “worthwhile” human beings even though they may be missing a breast, part of their colon, their uterus, a lung, their hair and etc.

  3. Lori Hope Says:
    October 2nd, 2009 at 5:04 PM

    Very well said, as always, Kairol, and you could certainly write a book about this! In fact, Samantha King already did - Pink Ribbons Inc.” But that was in 2006, and the exploitation has grown infinitely more brazen and offensive since then.

    This new ad is particularly offensive to those of us punched by the behind-the-breast cancer, the cancer that kills more people than any other, the cancer that strikes an organ that no one can live without.

    And yet even lung cancer advocates are using sex to attract attention. In its “Look Deeper” PSA (see http://bit.ly/1aOlcE), the National Lung Cancer Partnership uses an attractive women to try entice the viewer to look behind the breast. But the PSA has gotten only 412 views on YouTube, probably because the woman’s breasts aren’t as big, and lung cancer is seen as a dirty disease, even though 15% of its victims never touched a cigarette, while breast cancer is soft and pink and clean, like a young nippled breast.

    Sex certainly sells, though, and some would say you gotta use what you have. Maybe it’s Machiavellian, but I can’t wholly fault anyone who’s been punched by cancer for using whatever they can to raise awareness and build compassion. Maybe the breast cancer ads miss that mark, though, as you say.

    Wish I had more time to think and write about this, but my son’s in town. Thanks again for a stellar post!

    Author of “Help Me Live: 20 things people with cancer want you to know”

  4. Heat Says:
    October 2nd, 2009 at 7:20 PM

    Totally agree with you. Thanks for talking about it!

  5. Aftercancer Says:
    October 2nd, 2009 at 8:36 PM

    You know I’ve been stewing about this ad for the last few days. Part of me says do whatever you need to do to draw attention to the needs of women with breast cancer, particularly young women, those with perky boobs. But I don’t think this ad is going to do that. I think this ad is being watched with the sound off.

    Now a couple of thoughts; this ad reminds me very much of the old Saturday Night Live ads for Schmidt’s gay beer (here’s a linkhttp://brainflop.com/link/schmidts_gay_beer_snl.aspx ). Maybe it’s just the frank objectification. Also as the hot woman stands in front of the guy on the float he takes a big bite of a hot dog, really! I think Freud might have a word or two to say about that.

    Unfortunately this ad doesn’t have a bit of thought about what the emotions of a young woman who used to look like the one in the ad feels like as she’s wearing her fake boobs.

    If I thought this ad would make a difference I guess I wouldn’t have a problem with it but I don’t think it’s going to matter. The audience that it is aimed at thinks they are invincible and breast cancer won’t effect them.

    I really wish the energy and money that was put into this was aimed at things that would really help women with breast cancer, whether investigating WHY women in their 20′s and 30′s are being diagnosed with breast cancer or aiming for health care coverage for those who are diagnosed.
    Kate @ http://www.aftercancernowwhat.com

  6. Cathy Bueti Says:
    October 2nd, 2009 at 10:15 PM

    Kairol, great post and I totally agree with you on this one! This ad makes me angry. As a young breast cancer survivor who was out there in the dating world minus a boob, with a reconstructed new one sans a headlight, it is just a reminder of what I was up against! Are you kidding me with this ad? It is all about the boobs and directed at young men. It is sending the message that if you still want to be sexy and gawked at by men you better hold on to your most important asset…your boobs. So what then is a young woman to do when she is faced with losing one or both? Is she left to feel that she will never be worthy without her breast?

    I think that a better ad would be the one you describe where you see the reality of breast cancer….the view of the breastless young woman with a mastectomy. Each morning that I look in the mirror at my lopsided rack with all its scars and fake headlight I can’t help but miss what I had. Although I am grateful to be alive and my doc made a new boob I will never feel whole. Losing a breast is like losing a part of your sexuality. 8 years later there are still moments when I feel bad about my appearance and think that my husband got the short end of the stick so to speak. My whole life I grew up disliking my appearance, especially my small boobs….feelings that were made worse by ads such as this. Its more like a beer commercial than a cancer awareness ad. I am all about trying to get the message across to young people about breast cancer but this is not the way to do it.

    Unfortunately I think that this ad sends the wrong message about a woman’s worth….

    Thanks for sharing this Kairol!

    Author of “Breastless in the City”

  7. Katie Schwartz Says:
    October 3rd, 2009 at 8:12 AM

    I agree with Kairol 100% regarding what would’ve been equally sexy while sending a clear message about the truth about cancer. Beautifully written, Kairol.

    While I don’t have cancer, I have an autoimmune disease, Graves’ disease. Research dollars are scarce for many cancers and autoimmune diseases. Celebrity attachment to disease or cause ignites public interest and parleys into (typing this runs chills up my spine), sexiness and appeal, which translates into research dollars.

    I think we as patients need to band together and create our own viral videos that are sexy, smart, irreverent as hell and that send a clear message that WE ARE HERE and we deserve the same attention and money for a cure that the others do.

    Kairol, congratulations on Newsweek! Keep up the great work you’re doing.


  8. Pat Steer (Gaelen) Says:
    October 3rd, 2009 at 9:05 AM

    I left this comment (more or less) about the same ad on a health marketing blog: http://thehealthcaremarketer.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/rethink-breast-cancer-save-the-boobs-commercial/#comment-312

    “I’m not offended – but I am misdirected. I agree…this spot misses the mark. It isn’t going to ‘generate interest’ or donations or even conversation among a demographic with minimal cash (young adults) and it doesn’t give them a non-financial alternative (get checked! be proactive!) It does reinforce the big-is-beautiful myth of female beauty in all of the ways (other commenters) described. It’s only good advertising if it gets EVERYone talking, and it’s not going to do that. The Dove inner beauty ads did a much better job of educating and raising awareness without reinforcing stereotypes and being obnoxious. Breast cancer awareness advocates looking to hit the same mark could have, should have taken their cue from the Dove ads, rather from beer commercials.”

    I’m all for humor in dealing with cancer — one of my favorite BC tees says ‘yeah, they’re fake - my real ones tried to kill me.’ I often refer to myself as the last comic lying down. But this isn’t using humor, or even good parody (although I did read a case for this ad as parody for the ‘male gaze’ in cinematography, and it does sorta succeed on that level.)

    What it doesn’t do it give people the tools to raise their awareness. It presents a problem, and no options for solution from its alleged target demographic. So unless there’s a followup (and fast) it won’t hit its mark. That’s offensive. ;)

  9. tara Says:
    October 3rd, 2009 at 4:40 PM

    I agree. Especially when people were commenting on if it’s even going to have an effect. I had seen the commercial and didnt even realize it was about breast cancer the first time. Granted i was half reading and watching TV, but still, I realized the content of other ads that past. I guess I checked out and thought it was a beer commercial. I only realized it when I saw the ad being replayed on a talk show for discussion.

  10. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    October 3rd, 2009 at 9:38 PM

    Clearly I’m not alone on this one. Thanks for your opinons. I just got a facebook comment from a woman said she had seen the commercial while she was watching TV and thought it was a beer ad. It wasn’t until the articles and controversy over the ad that she realized - “I was watching an ad for young women with breast cancer?!?” She happens to be a young woman living with breast cancer. Ironic.

  11. Michael Says:
    October 5th, 2009 at 10:19 AM

    As a man and a cancer survivor, I’d like to add that while the ad is provocative, it has a sort of empty feeling. The message about breast cancer is absent, or at least the cancer part. Ok, yes, I’ve been entertained and titillated, which was fun…but what most men are going to remember is the last time they were at a pool party. Most men will quickly forget what this ad was about. Flashing enticing sexy pictures at people is not going to get them involved in a cause to save lives. However, I expect few men will be complaining about the content of this ad, which appears to be hurtful and upsetting to women with breast cancer. Cancer is such a destructive force in people’s lives, it’s too bad they couldn’t be provocative and smart at the same time.

  12. Emma L. Devlin Says:
    October 5th, 2009 at 11:48 AM

    I haven’t seen the advertisement you mention and I am less likely to seek it out after reading your post. Using sex to encourage breast cancer screening is not new and unfortunately I see it becoming more prevalent. I wrote my own post commenting on the dangers of this tactic: http://therealpecan.posterous.com/concentrating-on-the-cancer-and-the-cure
    Thank you for adding another voice to this discussion. That the voice comes from someone who has experienced breast cancer adds more weight. I wish you good health and an audience of people with open ears and hearts to receive this message.

  13. Michelle Says:
    October 6th, 2009 at 11:34 PM

    Congrats Kairol on Newsweek, ABC News and NPR. You are really getting the young adult message out there! I came to this post to mention “Pink Ribbons, Inc” but Lori mentioned it in an earlier post. Check it out if you haven’t already. It really gave me food for thought.

    I haven’t seen this ad yet and hope not to anytime soon. Keep up the great work!

  14. anonymous Says:
    October 29th, 2009 at 3:39 PM

    I agree with many sentiments expressed here. I am strongly opposed to the objectification of women’s bodies in any kind of advertising and I do think “Save the Boobs” was insensitive to the experiences of women who have lost their breasts to cancer.

    I just wanted to clarify for everyone that the ad was not a PSA about breast cancer or promoting a charity per se. It was an ad for a huge party with a beach/cruise theme (“Boobyball”) that is a fundraiser for a breast cancer charity. The ad was intended to create hype and sell tickets to the party. The L.A. Times wrongly reported that it was a PSA.

  15. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    October 29th, 2009 at 4:01 PM

    In reply to the comment above this one: First of all, thanks for your comment. Secondly, I think you raise a great issue here of what is a PSA (public service announcement). I believe this term is widely over used and that cause related marketing has turned anything having to do with breast cancer into a “psa” or “awareness campaign”. A lot of marketing in the cancer world these days is branding for a charity. Nothing wrong with that. But, I think organizations and companies doing marketing sometimes believe that they are educating the public about cancer when in fact they are merely distributing marketing materials. There are many opportunities where advertising and cause related marketing could raise awareness about facts, statistics, public health issues instead of simply raising saying “breast cancer exists”. That much we already know.

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