Breast Cancer Educational Campaign
Digital images and the infrastructure that powers them
The campaign worked to bring basic health care information to people with breasts
Swedish Cancer Society
An Educational Campaign against Breast Cancer
In 2016, the Swedish Cancer Society produced a video to help people learn how to do breast exams on their own. The campaign resulted in an online debate that reveals the pervasive sexualization of bodies and breast cancer along with the flexibility and usefulness of formal abstraction.
The 12-second video features instructional text and animated figures with breasts in the shape of geometric circles to explain how to check for suspicious lumps that may be cancerous. The small figures stand against a soft pink, completely decontextualized from a time or place.
Removal from Social Media for Sexual Content
Despite the animation, abstraction, and educational intention, Facebook banned it. The social media giant removed it for marketing “sex products or services or adults products or services.”
No matter what the Swedish Cancer Society did, it couldn't get through to Facebook. The Guardian reports the society decided to appeal against the decision to remove the video. “We find it incomprehensible and strange how one can perceive medical information as offensive,” Cancerfonden communications director Lena Biornstad told Agence France-Presse. “This is information that saves lives, which is important for us,” she said. “This prevents us from doing so.” In the meantime, the non-profit organization wrote an open letter to Facebook featuring a rejigged image that shows a square set of breasts.
The letter reads: “We understand that you have to have rules about the content published on your platform. But you must also understand that one of our main tasks is to disseminate important information about cancer – in this case breast cancer. [...] After trying to meet your control for several days without success, we have now come up with a solution that will hopefully make you happy: Two pink squares!”
Facebook subsequently overturned its decision and said the film had been incorrectly removed, adding: “We apologize for the error and have let the advertiser know we are approving their ads.” But the conversation continued.
This is not the first time Facebook removed media on the basis of sexual content. As multiple journalists note, Facebook had spent 2016 defending its removal of what it deemed “sexual content,” including an iconic photograph showing the horrors of the Vietnam War. In the image, children run from a Napalm attack. The photographer Nick Ut Cong Huynh took the photograph for The Associated Press in 1972 and received a Pulitzer Prize for it.
Deutsche Welle reports that Facebook had originally deleted the image when a Norwegian newspaper posted it because one of the children depicted are naked. The Norwegian Prime Minister accused Facebook of attempting "to edit our common history" in response. After public outcry against the deletion of the image, Facebook changed its decision. Facebook's took the same pattern of action for both media.
Sexualizing Bodies and Cancer: Let's not "Save the Tatas"
Not everything associated with breasts is sexual. Removing the Society's video for sexual content blatantly demonstrates how dominant societies in Europe and North American have sexualized feminine bodies, even illustrated ones floating against a pink background performing routine health checks. But other organizations have sexualized breasts and breast cancer to the point of humiliation.
Cancer survivors have written about the degradation they experience when October rolls around in the United States and so-called awareness campaigns take over, because many of these campaigns focus on saving breasts for men's pleasure rather than saving people. "Save the Tatas," an especially prevalent term, or "Save Second Base" have become tools for getting men to purchase merchandise and participate in community runs operated by for-profits and non-profits with the goal of "raising awareness" rather than curing cancer. (Read about the problems of pink washing on WebMD.) Dr. Ashley Cleland asks why people and organizations sexualize the illness to get attention and reminds readers that sexualizing a life-threatening illness isn't cute.Rebecca Smith Masterson, a survivor or breast cancer, highlights that this type of awareness isn't awareness at all, just distraction.
The Morality of Abstraction
The Society's response to Facebook's removal of its video reveals abstraction as a method for avoiding censorship. By changing the shape of its illustrations, the organization proposed an alternative vehicle for the dissemination of information that circumnavigates the company's rules.
This switch from a series of geometric circles as breasts to a series of geometric squares also asks Facebook how it judges the morality of shapes. What line, exactly, does Facebook draw in censorship when it comes to basic forms? The ridiculousness of this question is not lost on viewers.
Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign and M21D
At M21D, we’re interested in the power exercised through advertising and social media, and the Swedish Cancer Society’s campaign deals with both within the context of social engagement. The controversy, although quickly amended, highlights society’s unnecessary sexualization of bodies with breasts and the suppression of basic health care that it incurs.
We’re eager to continue our research and learn more about the impacts of the campaign and how it changed social media’s treatment of bodies in public.
Facebook apologizes for banning breast cancer awareness ad, Deutsche Welle