The shock value of naughty cancer awareness campaigns on social media do create buzz, but whether they work in the long run is less clear, a marketing expert says.
Recent campaigns include one with the hash tag #C--kInASock, where the first word is fully spelled out. The campaigns show men wearing nothing but long socks below the belt, buffed men promoting breast self exams, selfies of women with no makeup promoting women's cancer awareness and research, and a female model touching herself and demonstrating how to look for early signs of testicular cancer on a bag of fake testicles.
"I can hear some extreme male groups saying, well you know, isn't it exploitative?" said Alan Middleton, a professor of marketing at York University in Toronto. "The answer is yes it is. But like everything, does it do it successfully in the cause?"
Creating broader awareness in an age of social and digital media has value for disease charities aiming to engage people beyond those directly involved, such as patients and their loved ones, Middleton said.
Last year, the Canadian Cancer Society launched Nutiquette: a dude's guide to checking his nuts. The social media campaign encouraged people to share the awareness video with young men — testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men aged 15 to 29.
In the YouTube video, a man with a guitar sings the steps men should follow to check for testicular cancer as Pop-Up Video-style tips appear in bubbles.
"Telling the story, our main message was you have to check yourself regularly and know what's normal for you. The humour element, we had to go a little outside of that, so it's where do you check it, when do you check it, what's appropriate?" said Andrew Kinnear, vice president of digital strategy at Environics Communications, which developed the video.
Market research suggested that young men didn't want to be preached to or read a brochure. Using humour helped to ensure that people would watch all the way to the end to get the full message, Kinnear said.
"What they told us was don't preach to us, make it engaging, make it funny, be a little edgy and different and that's what we're going to share and going to really appeal to us," said Mathew Sepkowski, director of marketing for the Canadian Cancer Society.
Sepkowski said he's aware of more graphic testicular cancer awareness campaigns than Nutiquette that are pushing the boundaries.
"Some have been more shocking than others. Some I think take it a little bit too far, but I think that the fact that they're getting [the message] out there and creating more awareness overall is positive."
So how far will the trend go? Will good taste prevail?
"You can shock people into awareness, but over time, will it deliver what you want, which is people giving you money, better research going into the problem and more volunteers?" Middleton said.
Middleton expects to see more "experiments" from major health charities until the sexualization bandwagon becomes tiring.
"We're past the age of hearts and flowers," he said.