18. Advertising WHAT???

Nizarys Vargas is a senior at the College of Mount of Saint Vincent. Her current concentration is business administration with a minor in sociology, and Ms. Vargas plans to become a funeral director. Having worked closely with the Sisters of Charity, she is committed to helping people through some of the saddest and most difficult times in their lives. The Sisters have also been a guiding force in helping her to know what it means to be surrounded by strong, empowered, and compassionate women. Ms. Vargas started to investigate breast cancer advertising under the direction of Dr. Omar Nagi.

Sarah Roman is also a senior at the College of Mount of Saint Vincent. Her main focus is sociology with a minor in psychology, and she’d like to work with children as a speech pathologist. Ms. Roman came to learn about this breast cancer advertising project through the recommendation of Dr. Omar Nagi, and she enthusiastically signed on. She was surprised to learn that something as serious as cancer could be repackaged in ways that sexualize women and hide the disease. Ms. Roman has also been working with Dr. Nagi for the past two years on a project investigating the effects of media on eating disorders.

In our everyday lives we see images everywhere that try to sell us things or influence are thinking. Some ads are simple and clear about what they’re trying to get across, but others hide behind misleading messages. One of the most widespread examples is using sex to advertise. This technique is even used in breast cancer awareness campaigns and the ads associated with breast cancer cause marketing. The images are sexualized to get the attention of consumer markets. In the process do consumers even know what it is that’s being bought and sold in the name of the cause? Have the ads lost the real messages of breast cancer advocacy?

To find out we are embarking on a study of college students that will test the impact of common advertising imagery. We want to find out whether other people are as confused by what the images represent as we are.

Here is the study:

In controlled environments, we will test a series of propositions. First, will people find the sexualized images of breast cancer compared to ads for other products indistinguishable? If this is the case, it is evidence that Breast Cancer marketing imagery is (at least sometimes) becoming homogenously sexualized. Second, we will give a presentation of images to find out whether the focus on sex in the ads has become the primary focus of the consumer’s attention, with the product or message being forgotten. We’ll start by asking some simple questions.

What is this an advertisement for?

Could it be perfume or body powder? Could it be sheets? Perhaps an art museum? Or could it be breast cancer? If breast cancer wasn’t your first guess, then you’re not alone. It wasn’t obvious to us either. It’s an advertisement for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Can you tell which of the images below is for Victoria’s Secret, and which one represents breast cancer?


It wasn’t obvious to us either. The one on the left is an ad for Victoria’s Secret, and the one on the right is a photograph taken from Scootercafe during a “we love boobs” party in London. Allegedly, all the money went to a charity for breast cancer prevention.

Photo from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/e_labutis/5297985968/in/photostream/.

Let’s try again. Victoria’s Secret or Breast Cancer Awareness?

Hard to tell them apart?

The one on the right is for breast cancer awareness though it could just as easily be used to sell Victoria’s Secret lingerie.

Finally, can you tell which image is an ad for cancer awareness, and which one is an ad for perfume? 

A bit easier?

Yes, the ad on the right is about breast cancer.

Is it possible for advertisements to be clear about the messages they are trying to send? Is it possible for ads to capture what it means to be “aware” of breast cancer?

For our research, we will present images similar to these to determine whether the messages are clear to consumers, or whether they are being lost to the most conventional media strategy of all time; selling sex and women’s bodies.

People might think we are researching the “obvious.” We would agree with that. It seems obvious to us that corporations use sex to sell. Is it also true that some breast cancer awareness campaigns use blatant sex to spread some kind of message? What is the impact of sexualizing breast cancer messages for consumers?

As young women, we do not “love boobies” in the same way that many advertisers, or maybe even many men, do. But we do love our bodies because we love ourselves. We wish that would be reason enough for the world to address cancer. We wish the advertising industry would use its considerable talent and influence to help us spread a new message of awareness that doesn’t whittle us down to our most basic parts. But who knows, maybe other people see it differently. That’s what our research will find out.

For more consciousness raising essays, check out “30 Days of Breast Cancer Awareness.”

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5 comments to 18. Advertising WHAT???

  • This is an important project. It’s an issue that is hotly debated in the breast cancer blogosphere, with even those who’ve had breast cancer maintaining the position, that any awareness is good awareness, even if it is overtly sexualized. I, however, take the contrary view, and agree with both of you, that the message and indeed the realities of breast cancer are lost in these campaigns. I’ll be very interested to read the results of this project, but sadly, I think I already know.

  • Janine Guglielmino

    If the students conduct the study online, I would like to help by sharing it with my Facebook family. I would encourage my breast cancer organization to share it as well, unless it would negative impact the students’ research to have a large sample of women who have had breast cancer. This is so important. Those pictures shocked me, and I thought I’d seen everything.

  • it doesn’t really surprise me that it’s hard to pick out the breast cancer ad from the lingerie…
    after all, it seems as though boobs and less clothes are what advertisers use to sell everything from cars…to…well, breast cancer awareness?? is it because people tend to pay more attention to the Ads this way??

    it’ll be interesting to see what your project shows!

  • Thank you for your comments. I’ll get in touch with the students to find out about an online survey. – Gayle Sulik

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest cutt.ly/jei8WJr

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