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12.27.09

Save the Boobs!

A new generation of women's health ads feature male actors giving the gift of a Pap smear, or ogling boobs in the name of breast cancer. Danielle Friedman on why the gross-out strategy is working.

Two prime-time actors cracking jokes about Pap smears. Shirtless guys ogling boobs, in the name of breast-cancer awareness. Jack Black giving himself a mammogram (yes, mammogram) on camera. A teenage boy pondering the hassles of periods.

No, these aren’t wacky new Saturday Night Live sketches. They’re ad campaigns for women’s health that target, feature, or otherwise engage men. And collectively, they mark a distinct shift in advocacy groups’ approach to spreading awareness about women’s issues—daring to cross over into a testosterone-fueled territory that previous campaigns rarely have.

Gallery: Testosterone-Fueled Women's Health Ads

Last month, CBS Cares (a branch of the TV network that creates PSAs for underserved causes) launched its now-infamous holiday Pap smear campaign, in which actors Chris Beetem and Josh Pais encourage men to get the woman in their life “something special” for Christmas or Hanukkah: a date with a gynecologist. “Just a schmear could save her life,” says Pais. “Give her the gift that will light up her menorah.” Not surprisingly, the ads were shamelessly parodied, by everyone from E!’s The Soup to NPR.

Still, they got people talking.

“The moment you say ‘PSA’ people’s eyes glaze over,” says Matthew Margo, executive producer of CBS Cares and VP of program practices in New York, who wrote and produced the spots with help from Massachusetts General Hospital. “There’s been viewer tune-out to conventional health messages. Targeting men on a women’s health issue is part of connecting with viewers differently, in unexpected ways.”

Just a few decades ago, discussing women’s cancers in public was taboo. But with the rise of the women’s movement and organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation, an empowering “pink” discourse began around breast cancer and other diseases—though the advocacy message was almost entirely voiced by women.

“In trying to make men comfortable talking about these things, [the ad campaigns] are doing what women did so successfully among themselves with respect to breast cancer,” says Barron Lerner, author of The Breast Cancer Wars and a medical historian, physician, and professor at Columbia University. “The American Cancer Society has been using celebrities for cancer awareness since the late 1940s. But in the early days, they would never have had a man doing ads for breast cancer.”

But in addition to engaging men, the new strategy's playful humor has sparked debate. “On one hand, cute slogans and sex appeal make talking about breast cancer less of a drag, and encourage youth support,” Kate Dailey wrote on Newsweek.com in October. “On the other hand, breast cancer is a serious disease.”

One woman who has helped to usher in the male-focused PSA trend is Noreen Fraser, a survivor living with Stage IV breast cancer and the founder of Men for Women Now, a celebrity-driven nonprofit that raises funds, supports research, and spreads awareness of women’s cancers. Fraser, a former producer of Entertainment Tonight and the product of a big, largely male Irish family, says she’s always valued the advice of the men in her life.

“Men are kind of marginalized when it come to women’s cancers,” Fraser says. “It’s been promoted by Susan Komen [and other groups] that women should rely on their girlfriends. But why shouldn’t men stand up for women’s cancers?”

Since founding Men for Women Now in April, Fraser has convinced A-list friends like Jack Black, Zach Galifianakis, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Segel, and Kevin Connolly to film creative, irreverent PSAs for women’s health, pro-bono. (For those who thought CBS’s Pap smear spots were shocking, check out Bob Saget’s vulgar ad.) In the pipeline for next year? A Pap smear ad starring Will Ferrell.

“It’s men for women, but it’s a big circle,” says Fraser. “I figured, if I go with comedy and men, I’ll have something that people pay attention to.”

But not all of the gross-out women’s health ads star men.

In September, MTV Canada’s Aliyah-Jasmine Sovani produced, wrote, and starred in a racy ad for the Toronto-based “Boobyball”—a charity event for the organization Rethink Breast Cancer—that engages men, well, indirectly. In the spirit of a cheesy beer commercial, the ad features a bikini-clad Sovani, her oiled breasts bouncing with each step, alongside the tagline “Save the Boobs.”

After appearing on the Maxim U.K. Web site, the ad became a viral hit. “I got a lot of letters from guys,” Sovani says. “It’s awkward for guys to talk to guy friends about a wife or girlfriend going through breast cancer.” By engaging men, she hoped to start a dialogue.

And not all of the ad campaigns are for charity, or cancer prevention. Enter the underground, acclaimed Zack Johnson campaign for Tampax, which includes a Web site, a series of online-only videos, and a Twitter account. The campaign revolves around Zack, a cute, shaggy-haired 16-year-old, who (as the story goes) wakes up one morning to discover that his, well, Johnson, has been replaced with lady parts. He experiences PMS, gets his first period—and of course, learns about the wonders of Tampax tampons.

By putting a boy in a girl’s shoes, the campaign aims to inspire greater physical acceptance and awareness in young teen girls—as well as empathy for female friends getting their periods for the first time. On Zack’s Web site, zack16.com, readers can offer the poor kid advice.

In many ways, though, Zack Johnson and his peculiar foray into womanhood can be seen as representative of this larger trend: Because he’s a guy talking frankly about what was once seen as a female-only, taboo subject, he catches people’s attention. He gets people talking. And for some, the fact that he’s a man allows him to deliver his message more memorably than any woman could.

Plus: Check out more from Giving Beast, featuring news, video, and amazing photographs of people, places, and issues that need our support.

Danielle Friedman has worked as a nonfiction book editor for Hudson Street Press and Plume, two imprints of Penguin Group. Her writing has been published in the Miami Herald, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and on CNN.com. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.