Social Activism: A Case Study

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


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.

Tortise Shell Eye Glasses

Warby Parker

“Boys will make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
My mom, 1987

Tortise Shell Eye Glasses
Hugh Eyeglasses

I began wearing glasses at 18 years old, back in 1987.  More specifically, I went into bifocals as a freshman in college.  My options were limited and very, very expensive. Given the cost, I defaulted to the cheapest frame in the store. I struggled to reconcile the reality that my glasses were my most used accessory in my life — they were the first thing I put on in the morning and the last thing I took off at night — and yet they failed to match my style and personality.  I lived in fear of breaking them or losing them, both from the immediate loss of vision and the extraordinary cost of replacing them.

While I didn’t know the phrase then, I longed for the day when someone would disrupt the industry. And then someone did.

Artifacts from the early hipster period

Around 2011, I began hearing about this new company, Warby Parker.  A friend’s husband was one of those early adopters every company wants.  He posted on Facebook about his journey to Warby-Parker, we saw him order, we saw him try on the glasses, we saw them arrive.  He celebrated his new look with links to the Warby Parker website.  Very soon after, his family and friends were all doing the same.  I watched the viral social media marketing in real-time and recognized that this company was doing a few things differently.  They relied on users to amplify their brand and in turn took advantage of and shaped the birth of social media for business.   More specifically, had Warby Parker gone the traditional route, they would never have attracted my friend. He was the type of person who needed to be an early adopter/influencer for everything.  He was both new to social media and new to Warby Parker and he used both to establish his own presence online. Looking through the archive of Warby Parker’s influencers, you can see this attitude reflected in people like Molly Yeh, Franklin Leonard, and Mohamed Fayaz.

I’m not sure their product would have resonated with a traditional market, even with the social good component. My friend would never have taken the risk to promote a product anyone had access to, he wanted to let you know how awesome he was because he had found this amazing company no-one knew about yet via a platform that reflected that same exclusivity.

Know your audience

Warby Parker emerged out of a very specific moment in time, serving a growing Millennial audience.  They clearly understood their audience.  They tapped into a zeitgeist with retro-styled frames, all with very cute and specific frame names.   They were also really clear who they weren’t serving.  Most eyeglass wearers don’t need reading glasses or bifocals until they hit their forties.  Warby Parker waited a few years before including those (at a much higher price) into their collection, waiting for their hipster audience to grow up.   Linear or mass-marketing would not have worked for Warby Parker, they would have wasted their marketing dollars on a huge segment of the population they had no interest in serving.

And yet …

You’d think I would have rushed to order once bifocals were introduced. At the time I was heavy into social media and could have been an early influencer. And yet, I’m still going to my local optometrist, paying obscene amounts for lack-luster eyeglasses, because there remain a few of us who need custom fitting, who can’t take a risk on not being able to see while we send glasses back and forth to a mail-order house somewhere far away. Despite all Warby Parker’s attempts to find a very narrow lane for marketing and promotion, they actually work best for mass-market consumers.

You know you’ve made it when …

While I could go on and on about the benefits of social media marketing and how well Warby Parker used and leveraged that, I actually think it is best illustrated by the geniuses at McSweeney’s, when they lampoon you, you know you’ve made it.

Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses. Unless they’re these totally amazing @WarbyParker frames I’m wearing in my pic! Starting at just $145 and tons of cute style options. (My fave is the Laurel in tortoiseshell!) #ad #glasses #eyewear
Parody is the highest form of flattery.