Illness as Metaphor
If there was any doubt that breast cancer has become a media star among diseases, it has been dispelled this fall.
First, Murphy Brown is diagnosed with a malignant lump in her breast. Then Ford Motor Co., which scored huge public relations points last winter as the exclusive sponsor of Schindler’s List, did the same deed again: It not only paid to air its own ads but also showcased fictional disease victim Murphy Brown as real-life cancer fighter Candace Bergen. (No wonder Dan Quayle gets confused.)
Even as Murphy’s fictional trials were unfolding, Lifetime aired a series of specials featuring real-life celebrity victims stricken with the disease, part of Lifetime Applauds: The Fight Against Breast Cancer, its public service campaign. Like the fashion industry before it, the media has discovered disease as a branding opportunity.
Disease marketing, of course, is hardly new-think of the Ronald McDonald House. As co-branding partners, diseases have some unique advantages. For instance, they are blissfully without controversy. After all, people do debate whether the Holocaust occurred. They also disagree on whether Murph should have had her baby out of wedlock. But a bodily disease is an unambiguous evil. And in our famously value-free society, it may be the last unambiguous evil. (Consider the demonization of the tobacco industry if you don’t believe me.) No one can be “for” a murderous affliction, and everyone can feel good about being against it.
Breast cancer itself has an additional allure for marketers. It is intensely relevant to particular consumers-women-yet it’s also a mass phenomenon. It crosses every market niche, grabbing a fragmented female audience. As Say It, Fight It, Cure It director Lee Grant’s documentary featured on Lifetime last month, grimly states, “If you are a woman, you are at risk.” Markets don’t get any more mass than that.
For a waning “feminist” sitcom looking for a ratings boost, for a cable network mining the women’s audience, for an automaker eager to sell family cars to the most influential consumer in the family, breast cancer is a marketer’s dream cause.
But have you ever wondered why the same isn’t true about prostate cancer? It is to men what breast cancer is to women. Prostate cancer is ubiquitous, potentially deadly and does its dirty work in a symbolic body part. Think of the sweet demos represented by the universe of potential prostate cancer victims: hard-to-reach mature males with oodles of disposal income.
Yet despite the high profile lent the disease in recent years by celebrity patients such as Michael Milken, Michael Korda and Norman Schwarzkopf, prostate cancer has not inspired corporate-sponsored charity races or sitcom gags about incontinence and impotence. This seems wise. If you want a man to bond with your brand, reminding him that his penis may be a ticking time bomb is not the way to go about it.
No, disease marketing is much more a woman thing. Breast cancer is attractive to marketers-and not just because it is a disfiguring, sex-specific killer that women dare not ignore.
Breast cancer allows contemporary women to turn the disease into an opportunity for sharing and caring, as well as an occasion to fight, assert and “take charge,” as Murphy/Dime Lady/Candace said on one of the Ford-sponsored PSAs. Breast cancer is a symbol into which women have poured their aspirations. Many men seem to lack the capacity to transform affliction into a growth opportunity. Instead, it just scares them silly and that’s that.
Indeed, beneath the Murphy Brown breast-cancer plot is a much more generic modern-girl romance of self-encounter.
Murphy makes the journey from denial and confusion to acceptance, courage and pride. A three-hanky documentary like Say It, Fight It, Cure It, a cross between a feminist political film and Queen for a Day, is also strictly girl stuff. For the soap-opera fan, there is a weeping Rosie O’Donnell telling heartbreaking stories about her mother’s early death. I myself, a weeper from way back, was brought to tears several times while watching it.
At the same time, for the feminist, there are personal tales of activism and defiance, as well as the repeated image of a raised female fist shaking as if to say, “Hell no, we won’t go!” Here is the essence of breast cancer as a marketer’s cause: It hits that sweet spot in all modern American women where soap-opera fan and feminist meet. Make no mistake, breast cancer is a feminist issue.
Better yet, from a marketer’s point of view, it is a feminist issue without politics. When women raise their fists at breast cancer, just who or what are they shaking it at? Death? Well yes, we’re all against that. Besides, marketers don’t have to ask the ultimate questions. Their job is to assure female consumers that, as we weep and share and struggle and clench our fists, their brands are at our side, applauding.