Right now, thousands of men all over the world are sporting newly grown mustaches. But this is not in the name of fashion; it is part of an annual campaign known as Movember, which aims to raise awareness of men’s health conditions by challenging men to grow a “mo” – slang for mustache – during the month of November. But do campaigns like Movember succeed in raising awareness among the general public?
Movember began in 2003 in Melbourne, Australia. According to the Movember Foundation, a group of male friends got together and came up with the idea of growing mustaches to raise awareness of prostate and testicular cancers and mental health problems among males.
The idea is that men who take part in the campaign shave down their face on November 1st. They are then required to grow a mustache for the rest of the month, while family and friends donate money for their mo-growing efforts.
In 2003, only around 30 men took part in the campaign. Now, Movember runs in 21 countries, including the US, UK, Russia and Brazil. To date, the movement has raised $559 million for men’s health programs around the world.
But Movember is not the only campaign that has increased in popularity. This summer was all about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – a campaign that aimed to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and Motor Neurone Disease (MND).
In July, social media sites were awash with videos of the general public and high-profile celebrities – including Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Tom Cruise and George W. Bush – taking part in the challenge, which involved pouring an ice-cold bucket of water over their heads and nominating others to do the same.
If a nominated individual accepted the challenge, they had to record a video of them taking part and post it on social media within 24 hours, before making a donation. If a nominated person refused to accept the challenge, they were required to make a larger donation.
A “Thank You” video from the ALS Association shows some of the challenges in action:
This year alone, the ALS Association received $115 million dollars in donations from people taking part in the Ice Bucket Challenge, while the Motor Neurone Disease Association in the UK received £48 million ($75.7 million) in donations in just 1 month.
There is no doubt that such campaigns have had a significant impact on the amount of donations made. Between July 29th and August 28th of this year, for example, the ALS Association received around $95 million more in donations than the same period the previous year, when the Ice Bucket Challenge was nowhere to be seen.
But some people have questioned whether these campaigns are really helping to raise awareness of important health conditions.
Earlier this year, a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that individuals who support a cause anonymously are more likely to engage in meaningful, long-term support of that cause than those who support a cause publicly.
The study, co-authored by Kirk Kristofferson of the University of British Columbia in Canada, investigates “slacktivism,” which the researchers define as “a willingness to perform a relatively costless, token display of support for a social cause with an accompanying lack of willingness to devote subsequent significant effort to enact meaningful change.”
And slacktivism is a term that has been associated with awareness campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge – particularly because of its reliance on social media.
In a blog for The Huffington Post in July, Ben Kosinski, founder of Sumpto – a community website for college students – wrote:
“We have an internal value associated with each Facebook post, Tweet and Instagram. If you use that social action to help further a cause, that social action is taking the place of an actual donation.
Instead of donating, we are posting. By creating such awareness, this awareness has a cap; a ceiling of sorts, that if reached can then become cannibalistic in nature. The viral nature of this almost hurts ALS due to the substitution of potential donations with a social post; internally, people think they have donated when in turn they’ve only posted.”
Alongside this notion of slacktivism comes the argument that many of us become involved in awareness campaigns purely to make ourselves look good, even though we have no real care for why we are throwing that bucket of ice over our heads or are growing a mustache.
“Of course, when we ‘Like’ a page on Facebook or wear a visible pin, we’re doing it because we want to support the cause and believe in the values of the cause,” says Kristofferson. “But there’s also this other motivation that’s more self-interested, which is impression management: we want others to think we’re good people.”
Kosinski applies this self-interest to the Ice Bucket Challenge in his blog. “We’re using the Ice Bucket Challenge to show off our summer bodies,” he writes. “We’re using it to tag old friends. We’re using it to show people we care. We’re using it to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re using it to promote ourselves, in one way or another.”
The “no make-up selfie” – which went viral on social media sites in early 2013 – is one campaign that was strongly linked to self-interest. It involved women all around the world posting bare-faced selfies, claiming to be raising cancer awareness.
But many people questioned how a woman posting a photograph of herself wearing no make-up could possibly do this.
“Are so many of us hiding behind a mask of foundation and fake eyelashes that sharing a make-up free picture is shocking enough to raise awareness of a disease that destroys lives?,” wrote Emily Buchanan – a UK writer for the The Huffington Post – in a blog for the newspaper, adding:
“No. The only awareness it raises is that of a society that’s sick and that values beauty above all else. Of a society that systematically batters self-esteem so that people consume; so that people spend thousands of pounds on beauty products and clothes just so they can feel good about themselves.”
That said, the no make-up selfie movement raised a significant amount of funds for cancer charities, after people began posting their pictures with instructions on how to donate to various organizations. Cancer Research UK, for example, received £8 million ($12.6 million) in donations within 1 week of the campaign going viral.
With so much money being raised from campaigns such as Movember, the no make-up selfie and the Ice Bucket Challenge, some people argue that it does not matter why people take part, as long as awareness is being raised.
“Do you think Anna Wintour, Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham were talking about ALS a few months ago? No, I very much doubt it,” writer, actress and disability rights campaigner Shannon Murray told the BBC in September when talking about the Ice Bucket Challenge.
“It’s been very celebrity-orientated and it plays into our culture of putting everything about ourselves out there on social media. Some people have chosen to do it in a bikini, some have chosen white T-shirts, some people have obviously done it to raise their profile and that’s up to them. Personally it makes me a bit uncomfortable, but actually the bottom line is that people weren’t talking about [the disease] 2 months ago, and now they are.”
There are figures to back up this statement. Prior to the Ice Bucket Challenge, around 17,000 people visited the ALS Association website each day. In August – after the campaign had taken hold – the site gained 30 million visitors for that month. What is more, the association increased their number of Twitter followers by more than 12,000 between July and August.
Alongside the Movember campaign, the Movember Foundation conduct an annual survey as part of their Awareness and Education Program. The survey aims to assess how past participants of Movember view and act on men’s health issues.
The results of the 2013 survey revealed that 99% of participants now talk to someone about their health, 75% have become more aware of the health issues they face and 50% have told another person that they should take actions to improve their health.
Other people, however, are more critical as to whether these campaigns do actually help to raise awareness. Talking about Movember in a blog for Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail in 2012, reporter Amberly McAteer wrote:
“How many mustache growers actually stop to talk about men’s health issues? Is a man with a mustache supposed to be an informed ambassador?
Here’s the thing: I can name about a dozen men last year who grew a mo, bragged about their offputting ‘staches, attended Movember parties and posted countless Facebook photos of their […] facial additions – but didn’t raise a cent. Even worse, about half of those guys didn’t know they were supposed to raise money.”
There will continue to be mixed views on whether such campaigns create awareness among the general public, but one thing is for certain: they do raise money, which is put toward programs that may offer long-term health benefits.
Last year, the UK’s Movember campaign raised £20.4 million ($32.1 million). Around 84.5% of this money was forwarded to programs managed by Prostate Cancer UK, while 2% was given to programs managed by the UK’s Institute of Cancer Research.
In the US, 44% of the $22.9 million raised by Movember last year is being put toward programs managed by the Prostate Cancer Foundation. And earlier this month, CBC News reported that money raised from Movember in Canada is being used to help find alternatives to prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening for prostate cancer, which can often be inaccurate in diagnosing the disease – a condition that affects around 1 in 7 men in the US.
In October, the ALS Association revealed that they would be putting $21.7 million from Ice Bucket Challenge donations toward six research programs dedicated to finding new treatments and a cure for ALS.
While some people may not welcome these campaigns that seem to take over our Facebook and Twitter feeds, it is clear that they are helping us to tackle many of the diseases that affect the lives of millions of people each day.