Social Activism: A Case Study

Collection of images supporting breast cancer awareness
Google Images screenshot of breast cancer awareness memes

“Beige”

Our case study this week looked at the Susan G. Koman Foundation‘s early use of viral memes to raise awareness about breast cancer.

For those of us on Facebook in 2009 and 2010, that meme was probably passed on to us by one of our new Facebook friends through a private message. We were encouraged to post the color of our bra or the where we like to put our pocketbook when we came home at the end of the day, with no context. The idea was to make it provocative and eventually confess that it was part of a Breast Cancer Awareness campaign.

The campaign worked on a couple of principles we’ve studied so far in MKT-555, it was crafted to carefully leverage ” who says what to whom and with what effect” (Lasswell, 1948; Griffin, 2011)

  • The who: it leveraged in-group affiliation, the who being both the communicator and the participant. Before there was a term for social media influencer, there were early and active Facebook promotors. To receive a private message to update your status confirmed your belong in a small, suddenly viral process.
  • The What: the message was intended to be provocative and generated immense curiosity. The Susan G. Kolman foundation followed it up with this post to the Fanpage. “Whether you are a full-fledged Breast Cancer supporter or a shameless, sexually-charged horndog, this page is for you.”
  • The Effect: It raised awareness about breast cancer among a (then small) social media community. Although there was little evidence to prove a correlation with fundraising.

Unintended Consequences

What started as a fun-flirty campaign eventually attracted some criticism. You might expect that from Jezabel, but I was surprised to see the refrain echoed on Forbes. The meme, which is supposed to pro-woman, is actually based on the idea of triggering a male gaze, that if we can just get men talking about it and taking it seriously, then we can make a difference. For a lot of feminists, that became deeply problematic.

One of the frequent complaints about the campaign was that people were fairly familiar with breast cancer, thanks to a decade of pink-infused corporate affiliations. As one Facebook user wrote:

 “When it comes to ‘awareness,’ do you know anyone who is not ‘aware’ of breast cancer? But, are they also aware that it is now one of the most treatable forms of cancer with a high survival rate, that it is not the biggest health threat to women, and that more money is spent on salaried employees creating a marketing campaign than is spent on research and patient support.”

Bras Gone Viral

The other problem is that users were left with little else to do after disclosing their bra color, maybe they mentioned that it was for Breast Cancer Awareness, but there was no encouragement to do anything about it, no link to donate, or share your story of how improvements in breast cancer research made a difference in your life. Compare that to say, the ALS-Ice Bucket Challenge a few years later in 2014, where the campaign was able to raise $115m and awareness about a disease most people had never heard of.

And Yet …

One of my favorite quotes is from a French Philosopher named Michel Foucault. To paraphrase, we are all in a state of becoming. The idea is that we evolve and improve. In 2009 and 2010, in the early days of social media, this was a really interesting experiment, testing the limits of influencer behavior on new platforms. Would I copy the formula today? No, but can I recognize the ingenuity and learn from the missteps? You bet.

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