Memes, Cyberactivism, and Breast Cancer

Off Brand

Hello darling readers! We are back with another marketing class assignment! This particular assignment is addressing something that is near and dear to my heart. Both metaphorically and quite literally. I’m going to need to ask you all to dive into your mind’s Wayback Machine and pull up some viral memes from the early aughts.

Drea, Black

Okay, who remembers when you would get spammed on Facebook at the beginning of every October with the latest, “Hey ladies, put this obscure message as your status update! It will confuse people and somehow promote Breast Cancer Awareness! Don’t tell the males!” or something to that tune?

So, ignoring that referring to people as males and females is repugnant, let’s focus on the memes. It started with name and bra color, i.e. “Drea, Black.” Then it was phrases like, “I like it on the chair,” or “I like it next to the bed,” where the “it” was where you left your bra. After that it was a number, followed by the word “inches,” and how long it takes to do your hair. Because sex sells, the heightened sexualization of the meme resulted in increased circulation, including but not limited to national news coverage.

I absolutely remember when these messages were circulating. The meme aroused interest, certainly, and hundreds of thousands of women jumped on board. I understand why – it was fun, it was playful, and it was interactive! Each person could customize the message to reflect themselves while still participating in the larger movement. As an extra bonus, you got to be in on the joke! People love being in the inner circle, even if that inner circle is enormous. Finally, it let people feel like they were doing something, helping a cause, for very little effort.

But was the meme effective? Short answer, no. Let’s look at the longer answer.

Breast Cancer Awareness

Source: Get The Gloss

Raising awareness for breast cancer is like raising awareness for the ocean – if you are ignorant of the subject in today’s day and age then it is because you have either been hiding in a hole in the earth, or you have intentionally avoided any sort of internet activity, news media, grocery stores, I could go on. There are a lot of problems with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and how they’ve made breast cancer an industry, but they have certainly gotten the word out. Pink products regularly flood every business imaginable during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Businesses change their logo colors. Arenas turn their display lights pink. The awareness is there.

Awareness is not needed as much as education and action. People across the world patting themselves on the back for raising awareness for a cause that is already widely known doesn’t do much to actually help said cause.

Save Women (and Men), Not Boobs

Another problem with the viral memes is the continued sexualization of breast cancer. So, yes, as I said earlier, sex sells. A lot of survivors are quick to point out, however, that breast cancer isn’t sexy. Not only that, but focusing on messages like “Save the Ta-Tas” and “Save Second Base” is incredibly objectifying. And survivors have been making this argument for a while.

Source: SCAR Project, Copyright 2011 © David Jay Photography

Some efforts have been made to bring the public image of breast cancer back to its reality. The Scar Project, which has been described by Forbes as “a shockingly raw, yet strikingly beautiful, photo series that shows a side of breast cancer we’re not used to seeing,” documents survivors boldly topless, many with nothing but a long scar where a breast once was. The survivors are smiling, stone face, and crying; some stand next to a family member, some are held by a partner, one even depicts two generations of cancer survivors, but most are in the image alone.

While I understand that breasts are sexy to a lot of people, myself included, the problem with using sexualized marketing strategies for breast cancer is that it is ignoring that a person is battling death and facing disfigurement for a chance to survive. People diagnosed with breast cancer are more than just their breasts. Furthermore, did you know men get breast cancer? Because men have breast tissue. All humans have some amount of breast tissue, no one is completely risk free here, though women absolutely bear the largest risk.

Correlation ≠ Causation

Now, I know what you might be thinking. Yes, objectifying breasts is a bad thing, but could this be a case of the ends justifying the means? Those memes got national news coverage—surely they did some good even if they made people uncomfortable? Well, the aforementioned Susan G. Komen did report an increase in donations during the time those memes were circulating. But those memes were circulating at the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

In both my journalism classes, as well as my statistics class (ah, the good old undergrad days), a point that was brought up in the first week and covered repeatedly throughout those courses was that correlation does not equal causation. I know this is a hard one for a lot of people, particularly you political types. The ONLY way to prove causation, is through experimentation. What this means for our current conversation is that there’s no proof the memes did anything other than make a lot of people feel warm and fuzzy and convinced that they were doing something useful.

This in a nutshell is the problem with cyberactivism. It’s really easy to post something on social media and feel like you did good. However, if your post doesn’t contain something that educates, or links to a place where people can make donations, or actually furthers the cause in some way, then you didn’t really do anything. The memes didn’t go viral for their message, they went viral because it was mysterious and everyone leapt on that bandwagon.

What actually helps?

Cowgirls Against Cancer. Source: Colorado Springs Gazette

As a society we are still working on how to employ social media for the greater good. Humanitarian Academy for Development has a great, quick article on the good and the bad of cyberactivism. The tl;dr is that it gives people the sense of doing good for very little effort and sometimes no results, but at the same time it can also spread a message far and mobilize people that might otherwise have remained disparate. So how can cyberactivism help?

  • Educate. A cute message isn’t enough, provide information.
  • Connect. Include links to educational sites, foundations, message boards, etc. For example, here’s Breast Cancer Action’s site, check them out.
  • Donate. Want to help but don’t want to spend a lot of time doing it? Send money. Directly to the org, don’t just buy something pink/green/puzzle pattern/pick your cause’s merch color.
  • Get involved. Use your new online connections to find the people who are getting things done, and go join them.

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