Marks and Spencer #showyourstrap is not enough to fight breast cancer

Marks and Spencer and Hush have come a cropper as Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2015 kicks off. Both launched campaigns ostensibly designed to generate awareness and funds for breast cancer research but which have been criticised for being insensitive.

It’s hard to look favourably at Hush’s limited availability range of highly priced sweatshirts printed with the slogan “lucky”. A limited range would not drive awareness. A high ticket price would drive profit. The message completely off key. Where’s the good? Hush has stopped marketing the ill-advised promotion after the horrified response from those affected by breast cancer who felt far from lucky. (Although, despite the outcry, you can still buy the sweatshirt!)

Meanwhile Marks and Spencer continues with its #showyourstrap campaign, asking women to share photos of themselves showing their bra strap in social media, despite the criticism that it is sexualising breast cancer. Breast cancer survivors have responded by kicking off a homegrown social media campaign #showyourscar.

Frankly, the #showyourstrap pictures are sexualised. They’re selfies, posed with all the requisite narcissism. Young, attractive women – the staple fodder of marketing – creating aspirational images. That’s not the reality of breast cancer.

But it is likely to be more shareable – so I guess Marks and Spencer can tick off the raising awareness objective to some extent. But what of education? Is that worth sacrificing in order to get an unwelcome message out?

Breast Cancer Awareness Month ( #BCAM ) is a campaign to generate awareness of the most common cancer in the UK. And to raise funds to support both vital research into the cancer and services to support those who are affected. It has been very successful over the years – helped enormously by the adoption of the pink ribbon as a visual identifier for the cause. But it also about educating people and this is much harder to achieve – who wants to face up to something so scary if they don’t have to?

Tying up with a large brand can offer a cash-strapped charity well needed funds and the opportunity to get its message in front of many more people than it can reach alone. For a brand it can demonstrate that it is a business that does good – all the while courting cynicism about its profit motive.

For the breast cancer cause, all the ingredients are there for successful campaigning. A critical problem that needs to be dealt with. An easily identifiable audience that is likely to know someone who has been affected, in which case will have personal motivation to participate and is well used to being marketed to.

That’s why there continues to be such a tsunami of pinkwashed campaigns, some well meaning, some profiteering, all focusing on that easier initial objective of awareness.

Perhaps – given it’s such a marketing gift – it’s now time to demand a bit more of brands. They should get stuck into the more challenging area of education. To quote Julia Lawrence – don’t bother to #showyourstrap – #checkyourboobs instead.

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