Can Prostate Cancer Activists Get Us to Think Past Pink?

September is supposed to belong to prostate cancer, but its 30 days routinely pass by without much attention paid to the exocrine gland.

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It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but you probably knew that already. You can't crack open a yogurt, catch a football game, or clean your sex toys in the month of October without being prodded to think pink. In fact, breast cancer awareness has become such a pervasive social phenomenon that advocates are now painting the world pink all year 'round. "The pink haze, as I affectionately call it, sets in around early September, and it doesn’t really lift until December," says Skip Lockwood, CEO of prostate cancer awareness organization ZERO.

September is supposed to belong to prostate cancer, but its 30 days routinely pass by without much attention paid to the exocrine gland. “We do get some additional coverage in September, but it just hasn’t attained the power of breast cancer awareness," Lockwood says. For years, prostate cancer awareness advocates have attempted to replicate breast cancer's glow. The decision to focus on September—a month also claimed by ovarian cancer, childhood cancer, thyroid cancer, and leukemia and lymphoma—involved the impulse to "hang on to breast cancer's coattails a little bit," Lockwood says. Instead, prostate cancer occupies a fall awareness market already revving up for pink. "You have all these foods and products associated with breast cancer, and they print all their labeling at once and keep it there until they run out of the labels," Lockwood says.

The movement to raise awareness of prostate cancer has lifted plenty from the breast cancer awareness playbook. The National Prostate Cancer Coalition launched in 1996, "created on the model of the National Breast Cancer Coalition," Lockwood says. The coalition picked a calendar month and settled on a blue ribbon for its icon, the boy version of breast cancer's girlie emblem. “We learned very closely from what the breast cancer movement had done successfully," says Lockwood.

Now rebranded as ZERO, the organization has helped increase funding for prostate cancer by almost 400 percent since 1996, inspiring "very important medical advancements in the treatment of the disease,” Lockwood says. But the awareness effort is still waiting on men to start thinking blue. “There are 21 different organizations that use a variant on blue for their ribbon," Lockwood says. "We’ve done marketing research that shows that blue doesn’t resonate with men. It doesn’t motivate them to take action. They don’t like that the ribbon seems like a copycat of women. They need something that’s their own."

Prostate cancer awareness advocates aren't yet sure what that looks like. Like breast cancer, prostate cancer awareness efforts have focused largely on road races, government lobbying, and corporate partnerships, but they've failed to establish a winning awareness brand. Prostate cancer awareness advocates have aligned with Movember, a masculine fundraising initiative that encourages men to grow mustaches to raise money for men's health, but prostate cancer doesn't own the mustache. They've launched a kitschy Save the Males campaign, but they don't own that phrase, either.

Breast cancer and prostate cancer draw a natural comparison—similar numbers of men and women are diagnosed with and die from the diseases each year—but prostate cancer awareness advocates are facing some unique challenges. The physical screen for prostate cancer involves a doctor putting a hand up a man's butt, for example. Prostate cancer treatment is even more devastating to the male sexual identity. “The thing that we find is very difficult is that—and forgive me for being a bit crass—if a man is thought to think with his groin, then prostate treatment is akin to a lobotomy,” Lockwood says. “It is so stigmatizing to a man’s perception of himself." Even men who are acutely aware of prostate cancer don't always want other men to be aware that they're aware. "I’ve got guys with prostate cancer on Capitol Hill who won’t even sign onto a Prostate Cancer Awareness Month proclamation because it might challenge their virility," he says.

The prostate cancer screen must be conducted via the rectum, but Lockwood assures men that unlike with a colonoscopy, the prostate mercifully sits "pretty close to the back door." To help demystify the process, ZERO has launched a set of traveling examination buses equipped with "man caves" which ZERO reps park outside big box stores and sporting events to deliver what Lockwood calls "man-centric healthcare." Men can drop in, watch a comedy with some other dudes, then duck into one of two exam rooms to have their prostates felt by on-site doctors. Snacks are involved.

Meanwhile, the breast cancer awareness movement has been hard at work developing an even more enduring icon than the pink ribbon: It's got boobs. Many women diagnosed with breast cancer lose their breasts to the disease in an effort to save their lives, but that hasn't stopped marketers from focusing on the mammary. Saving women's lives isn't sexy. Boobs are. So breast cancer supporters are invited to "save the tatas," express their love of "boobies," peel off their bras, and strap on high-heels to support the effort.

Can activists spin the prostate the same way? Lockwood doesn't think so. "We've found that we have to completely remove sex from the issue, because it freaks men out," Lockwood says. Supporters will approach him and say,"Why don't you have cheerleaders out there? It would get tons of guys out," Lockwood says. "It actually does the opposite. It shuts it down."

Other prostate cancer awareness advocates are running with a new tactic: Confront the sexual anxiety head-on. Enter "Branko," a beefy Czech man in a red tracksuit who roams the streets with a latex glove strapped to one hand, offering pro bono prostate exams to strangers and otherwise attempting to "go viral." Branko is Borat—if all Borat wanted to do was feel dudes' rectums for science—and he represents an attempt to exploit the fear over prostate screenings for good. Online, Branko lurks in an abandoned warehouse, laughing maniacally, snapping his glove, and beckoning men to "come here, little tushy" over the sounds of bleating sheep. In order to become more "aware" of the facts about prostate cancer—presented in an appropriated Eastern European typeface—online users must navigate to a mock-up of a leaky men's shower, where a menacing Branko stands with one latex-covered index finger raised in the air.

The tagline of the campaign encourages men to "contact your family doctor and get checked before you get Czeched."

"Men are basically big babies," explains Dan Zenka, senior vice president of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, of the inspiration behind the campaign. (The Branko campaign is affiliated with PCF, but not ZERO). "We don't take care of our health. We put off the annual physicals. We ignore many of the important messages to our health. This is a very difficult disease for many men to get their heads around, and we wanted to use humor to break through the clutter." The campaign is targeted specifically at younger men who may otherwise be apathetic about undergoing regular cancer screenings. "It's not speaking to the men who are taking care of their health," says Zenka. "It's trying to break through to those who are afraid of it."

The campaign has certainly stoked fears. I asked a few friends in the target demographic for their thoughts on the campaign. "Why is this happening in a weird warehouse? Is this supposed to make me never want to get important health screenings?" one asked. "This is very rapey," another said. Despite Branko's impressive scare tactics, the campaign has largely been ignored since it was rolled out last month. For prostate cancer awareness, it's back to the drawing board.