Last week, on one of the nation’s extraordinarily exciting “snow days” I received the following message on facebook:
I had been curiously noting the colour status updates of my various friends for a few days, and promptly forwarded the email to some of my girlfriends, encouraging them to join in. I then sat back and watched a rainbow (ok, more of a slush-bow, if the array of “black” and “kinda grey – used to be white!” is allowed proportionate representation) emerge in front of me.
Alongside the rainbow status updates I noted friends and colleagues adding their two-penneth to their statuses. Some were having a bit of fun – one of my male school friends wanted in on the action, declaring loudly and openly that he was “red latex”. But others commented on a more serious note; one declared “Darn it – was supposed to schedule a check up before Christmas… will do it now” and another “That reminds me…” I personally remembered the meme when I undressed that night and gave myself a quick examination – something I, and I’m sure many other women, don’t do nearly as regularly as we should. I was feeling pretty smug that we’d done out bit.
A few days later I received an emarketing bulletin highlighting all the reasons this was the perfect viral marketing campaign. Breast Cancer affects a particular and limited audience: women. Because of this, the meme told us to share the instructions with other women only, creating a sense of community and secrecy at once. This encourages us to hit that “forward” button. There is no financial incentive to purchase anything, and no discernible retail marketing slant to the meme, decreasing its chances of being considered a scam. It doesn’t require you to click on a link, so is unlikely to prove an exercise in phishing. Theoretically (and I’ll get on to that one later), the meme supports an important cause. AND it carefully avoids all the usual chain email tactics, so doesn’t tell you that if you do pass it on you’ll have good luck before midnight tonight, or if you don’t you’ll die horrifically in a car crash at 11am next Tuesday…
And then, a friend whose opinion I hold in highest respect drew my attention to some adverse views on the meme. Through Twitter she highlighted a couple of blog posts, and set me thinking about the opposite side of the coin, a side I wouldn’t otherwise have considered…
The first blog post, written by Mary Carmichael for Newsweek blog, highlighted the fact that the meme’s main purpose seemed to be to titillate teenage boys, that we didn’t know the origin of the email and so were likely all being duped into a viral scam, and that raising awareness was not something that we needed any longer – that we were passed awareness and now needed action. I commented that, if men were that easily titillated we had far greater problems than we thought, that we didn’t really need to know the origins of something if it was doing its job (I don’t care if I’ve been duped if it leads to early detection in my friends and family!) and that awareness was what leads to action. Because we are all “aware” of breast cancer in so far as we know it exists, that most of us know how to examine ourselves to spot early signs, and that it is a killer. But for the large part this awareness sits silently in some forgotten corner of our brains until someone we know is diagnosed. Or, until a meme reminds us to schedule that mammogram or self-check ourselves for lumps, bumps and changes.
The second blog post was so honest, so well-written and so moving that I couldn’t comment without revealing myself as an insensitive hypocrite. Written by Susan Niebur over at Toddler Planet, a cancer survivor whose double mastectomy prevents her from wearing a bra, it highlighted all the reasons why a meme like this shows a complete lack of empathy or understanding for those who have actually fought the disease. Because those who’ve had their breasts removed no longer need this particular kind of support – by its very nature this meme underscored their pain, ripping open their old wounds by its exclusive nature. And I confess, this is not something I would ever, even in my most empathetic moments, have considered. Beyond this, Susan’s post provoked a variety of comments, some grateful, some painful, all supportive. Beneath her post an entire network emerged, many of whom had been stung by the meme, but felt they had no outlet, no-one to share their pain with. The post made me cry in sympathy and in shame – the comments did nothing to stem the flow.
Still, I can’t help but feel that, regardless of who started it, and trusting to the aims and objectives as set out in the email I received, this meme remains an example of viral marketing at its best. Because, despite the pain it caused her, Susan did blog about the psychological as well as physical scars of breast cancer in a way that raised my awareness to new levels. The proliferation of posts across the blogosphere in response to the meme, promoted via twitter and shared on facebook proved that, as a direct result, people were talking about it. If I checked my breasts as a result of the meme, the likelihood is that others did too, which can only be a good thing in my book. And the show of support for Susan’s blog post translated into support for one another between women at all stages of diagnosis, treatment and recovery.
It got all of us talking. It got some of us checking. And it got many of us thinking. And surely thought is the preamble to action?
For instructions on how to check your breasts click here
For instructions on what changes you should look for click here
For more information from Breast Cancer Care click here
For (maybe?) the source of the meme click here