Breast cancer awareness ads feature superheroes giving themselves breast exams

"Nobody's immune to breast cancer. When we talk about breast cancer, there's no women or superwomen. Everybody has to do the self-examination monthly. Fight with us against the enemy and, when in doubt, talk with your doctor."

A public health campaign for breast cancer awareness in the African country of Mozambique, created by ad firm DDB for Associação da Luta Contra o Cancer. Here are the ads: Wonder Woman, Storm, Hulk, Catwoman. From Ads of the World, and more at Copyranter.

There is some controversy in the medical world about the value of breast self-exams. Even if it's not the best way to detect cancer (mammography or thermography can "see" more than your hand, and many if not most lumps that can be felt are benign), I think more awareness and more data is generally a good thing. Even for superheroes.

As an aside, the ads are fun but I'm gonna guess that the creative team on this one was all-male, and possibly the same team that did this previous VERY NSFW campaign for the same organization in Mozambique. Ever notice how public health ads about testicular cancer and prostate cancer don't tend to feature fondle-y sexualized close-ups of those parts?

(thanks, Zapski)


  1. My primary care doc is a woman, a real great person.  But when she gives me the testicular exam, she puts on those purple gloves like she’s taking a small lamb to slaughter, then whips my junk out, flops it over and gives the sack a perfectly clinical squeeze.  You don’t WANT that sexualized.  It’s like watching Shar Peis scratch an itch.

    1. When my doctor does my breast exam he looks away, puts the gloves on, and makes it just about the least sexual touch I’ve ever had in my life. This is why I like my doctor. You don’t WANT your breast exam sexual either :/

      1. Agreed.  If you had even a whiff that your doc was fantasizing about your breasts, you might then think he’s distracted and could possibly miss important information.  Yes, totally agree.

      1. Awareness of what? I like my doc to do the exams. I am glad there are mamograms. But what the hell are all those resources doing directing attention to BSEs which do not (unless I am misinformed) result in increased breast cancer diagnosis, or decreased breast cancer death?

        1. Not everyone has access to a regular doctor. When I was poor and without insurance I did my own because I may not get to a clinic every year. However, if you do find something (though people are trying to shut this option down) you can use that to make an appointment. It’s very much like noticing a weird mole. 

          1. ARGH! ARGH I say!

            Do you folks not understand what “not efficacious at screening for breast cancer” means? BSEs do not help detect breast cancer. BSEs do not decrease death from breast cancer. It does not matter whether you have a regular doctor or not: they do not work in this fashion. Noticing whether you have a weird mole doesn’t play into it either: they do not work to detect breast cancer.

            So my question remains: why are we spending valuable and scarce public health dollars on promoting them instead of, oh, i don’t know: eliminating breast cancer carcinogens, or promoting clinical breast exams or mammograms, or something that actually has a health benefit?

        2. When dealing with large-scale public health studies, you have to be very, very careful with interpreting the data.  

          Take, for example, the most recent studies that showed no difference in mortality between two groups of women, one taught BSE, one not, across a large sample size.

          It *could* be that BSE is, in fact, not useful.  

          It could *also* be that women, particularly women enrolled in a program that tracked them for ten years while monitoring their breast health, are the type of women who would perform BSE unbidden by researchers.  They aren’t genuine random samples of the population.  They’re women who managed follow-though in a multi-year study. 

          Also keep in mind that the women were not told to *not* perform BSE.  They just weren’t encouraged to do so by the study setup.  

          What if the difference between the two in performing BSE was only a few percent?  If so, it is quite possible there is a diagnostic benefit vs. no BSE at all, but the two groups would not be differentiated enough for such a small signal to show with only a few hundred deaths per.  Without looking at the raw data, we can’t know.

      2. i think it is effective because it also causes people to go to the doctor who would not otherwise go. younger women are not routinely screened for breast cancer like older women are. it’s a tool to catch it much earlier than your doctor.

        1. Well the counterargument against self exams is that women skip the doctor visits because they believe that a self exam is adequate. Awareness of breast cancer is what I should have said.

    1. PUNY ABDUL ALHAZRED! NOT KNOW MAN-HULK GET BREAST CANCER TOO? Although actually, canonically speaking, both (She-)Hulk and Wonder Woman are immune. Oh well… the underwear perverts get all the breaks. 

      I’d say this isn’t so much “unintentional comedy” as “pointedly light-hearted,” which is a pretty neat trick given the subject. And I suspect it’ll do at least as much to get women to actually take some kind of positive step as the entire smarmy, Pepto-drenched month of NFL games that were supposed to be “raising awareness.” I mean, I get that millions of women watch football, but I don’t know what was worse–the queasy solemnity that the announcers dropped into whenever they did one of the scripted in-game PSAs, or the implication that the way to fight cancer was to literally slap a coat of paint on it.

      EDIT: re: immunity, I agree with the commenters below. Wonder Woman has been retconned into divine clay, and as for She-Hulk, “walking radiation oncology clinic” more or less sums up my thoughts. Although I am starting to feel a bit sheepish about being a comix-nerd in a cancer thread.

      1. Wait a moment, Wonder Woman = immune: Yes, made by a god from clay, etc; one would assume she would lack a weakness to cancer. But Shulk? Why do you assume any form of cancer immunity for her? She isn’t even in hulk-form all the time (although she does spend a lot more time in hulk-form than her cousin did), and as her “normal” self she has no special damage resistance, just a JD.

  2. Once again, I reluctantly find myself being That Guy.  I apologize in advance, but assuming the BSE has any efficacy at all (and I assume that any examination at all is probably better than none whatsoever), should she really be doing it through her, uh, Wonder Bra?

    1. I know you’re just joking around, but it’s worth mentioning that there are pads used for BSE that enhance the sense of touch.  They’re two thin layers of latex separated by a small amount of oil, and they eliminate skin friction as a confounding factor in sensing small details.

      1. Dental dams, available for free at your local Planned Parenthood or other sexual-health clinic, work quite well for this.  And it’s not oil unless you want your latex falling apart, it’s non-oil-based lube.  :)

        1. How ’bout that.  That’s good to know, even if superheroines don’t generally wear dual-layer latex outfits with a KY core.  Thanks!

          1. **grin**   Always glad to educate.  I do of course agree with you – the outfit makes this BSE useless, and the pose isn’t much better.  You can’t do an effective exam on squished-in-a-corset boobs.

            Dental dams are really useful for all kinds of things.  The one thing I don’t like them for is their actual stated purpose…  they’re hard to keep in place.  Some people put all kinds of ingenuity into engineering solutions to that.  Others use plastic wrap. 

            Yep, I’m totally a fountain of useful information tonight.

        2. I just double-checked.  It looks like the BSE pads are made out of polyurethane, not latex, with a mineral oil lubricant.  FWIW.

          1.  Ah, well in that case…

            Seriously, I hadn’t heard of those other than as a make-your-own-out-of-safe-sex-supplies thing.  But I wonder why they’d go with poly and mineral oil?  Maybe just because of latex sensitivities or something?  **shrug**

  3. Although actually, canonically speaking, both (She-)Hulk and Wonder Woman are immune.

    Really? What’s your source on that? It’s not simply because they’ve got superpowers, since the supervillainess Titania (a sometime foe of She-Hulk’s) has gotten cancer in the past. Some people, like Wolverine and his gender-swapped clone X-23, may be immune because of their healing factor, but even that’s not necessarily true, as in Deadpool’s case.

    1. I’m with you on She-Hulk (see my reply) but Diana isn’t technically a mortal born of woman. Hippolyta (queen of the Amazons) wanted a kid and Hera basically made her a daughter with some attributes granted by the various female gods. She’s made from clay and blessed with divine perfection.

  4. It’s a pity that after all the years they’ve worked together Wonder Woman isn’t comfortable just asking Superman to take a peek with that X-ray vision of his.

  5. Ever notice how public health ads about testicular cancer and prostate cancer don’t tend to feature fondle-y sexualized close-ups of those parts?

    Which is a shame because Nightwing in Arkham City is hot. No, seriously. Hot.

    And on topic, sort of, I had an ultrasound for a lump in my breast today. Nothing to worry about, they said, so whew.

    1. Isn’t that a fun process?  I’m only kind of sarcastic, here – I actually liked seeing the images of the inside of my breast.  :)

      I really do wish our bodies weren’t so incredibly sexualized.  Breast cancer has been – it drives me nuts.  It’s hard enough to deal with all by itself, life-threatening disease and all; the sexualization of it (“save the tatas” and groping ads, etc) makes it even worse for women who have to figure out how to live as sexual beings without all or part of a breast…

      1. It was certainly interesting, I’ll say that. The technician was excellent — he used heated gel for it and showed me the blood vessels feeding it (a lipoma, it turned out) and the various layers of flesh and bone and lung. The future is pretty amazing for the curious innards-voyeur (it was on a 21″ flat screen monitor), to be sure.

        I agree with your larger point re: sexualization of everything to do with our bodies. For clarity’s sake, though, I must admit to my maleness to at least deflect any notion that my breasts might be attractive to someone (unless Nightwing is disposed toward the bear persuasion…sigh).  I’ve been half-terrified/half-dismissive of this lump for a while and finally decided, honestly because of Xeni’s initial post about her test, that it was time to know for sure. I claim no bond to her or anyone else’s experience of the realities of breast cancer, only a brief, sharp, and thankfully unfounded, fear.

        1. I apologize for my assumption!  I usually try not to do that. 

          (And I’m quite sure there are plenty of people who do find your breasts attractive.  Not me, but I’m Really Really Gay.  I know plenty of guys into bears, though.  **grin**)

          That fear – the denial, the creeping anxiety, then the desire to face it – you do too have a bond with anyone who’s experienced the reality of breast cancer.  That’s a window into another experience, right there, which makes empathy a lot easier.  I know I can’t speak *for* people who’ve experienced things I haven’t, but being able to find similarities in our experiences means I can try to understand their standpoints.

          Welcome to your own little corner of Breast Cancer Land.

  6. Xeni said: “Ever notice how public health ads about testicular cancer and prostate cancer don’t tend to feature fondle-y sexualized close-ups of those parts?”

    Oh, but I disagree. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with this ad? Bear with the first half, the punchline is coming…

    Its safe-for-workness is questionable at best, so be careful ya’ll.

  7. Actually, I’m beginning to think campaigns for testicular cancer awareness SHOULD use images of prostates. I think when we see a picture of a person, we think, eh, that’s someone else. But a picture of something bad happening to a body part which we, also have, a body part that could just as well be ours…that’s more striking.

    The campaigns featuring breasts don’t annoy me for the same reason. I think they’re more effective when they do. 

  8. Just had an idea for a Movember campaign where for one month every male superhero inexplicably has a moustache, whether it makes sense in the storylines or not.
    Of course, She- Hulk’s (well, actually Hulk’s) powers have been explained as a kind of uber- cancer that doesn’t kill the host. So in that respect she has breast cancer, but of the sort that makes them grow four cup sizes while getting firmer. A related note, I remember there being a storyline where a female character had an apparent tumor, but also inpenetrable skin which made even a biopsy rather difficult.

    1. It was in Alpha Flight and the character was Diamond Lil. The writer, if I’m not mistaken, was Fabian Nicieza.


    1. Yeah, not a lot of breast tissue there and way lower levels of the hormones breast cancer likes to have around.  

  9. Regarding the last paragraph, this is probably going to make me sound like a sexist jerk but I feel it needs to be said.

    While I don’t see how a this or the ads that you linked to are sexual, I understand how some may see them that way. I also understand why they don’t do that kind of image for testicular, colon, prostate, or cervical cancer. Anything to do with the actual organs of excretion or reproduction is automatically considered vulgar. Breasts aren’t. That is why we don’t see this sort of image for those cancers. As far as most people and ad agencies are concerned it is not appropriate to show testicles, a vagina, or an anus in an ad. For reasons that escape me, a breast shown in a way that isn’t overtly sexual is okay though. It makes no sense, but it is a cultural thing.

    I think we should show images of testicular self exams and whatnot because they are just as important as breast self exams. For things like prostate cancer you can’t do self exams, but images that show a prostate in the proper anatomical location as a black hole or an angry demon or something might just be appropriate. The majority of the world disagrees though. 

    Basically, it makes sense as soon as you take off your ‘They’re showing boobies but not balls, how sexist’ glasses. When you look at it through a cultural lens and understand that breasts are in a different category from genitals it is understandable. Not necessarily good, but understandable.

    1. A woman widely considered to be really, really hot, both because she’s beautiful and because she’s a superhero, is groping her own breast . Oh, and her face isn’t shown.  This is a sexualized image – at first glance it doesn’t *look* like a BSE, it looks like the intro to softcore superheroine porn.

      There was a poster in the doctor’s office today – it showed the anatomy of the breast and how various kinds of cancers work.  It was super effective and really, really, REALLY not sexual.

      People are trying to use the fact that breasts are seen as sexual in our society to increase the attention paid to breast cancer.  That’s what this piece is doing. 

      For what it’s worth, I don’t hate it – hypersexualized female superheroes exist, they might as well be used to say some good things now and then.  But I dislike being told I’m being over-sensitive or culturally blind because I object to the constant, unremitting, ubiquitous sexualization of the female body.  I would love to have a chance to object to the same thing aimed at men, but it isn’t.  Men are allowed to be something other than sexy in media depictions.  Women are not.  There are exceptions on both sides, but they are very much exceptions that prove the rule (in the original sense of the phrase).  They stand out to us because they’re unusual, and they wouldn’t be unusual without the ridiculous gendered double standard.

      Also – anyone able-bodied and many of those who aren’t can check on the size and firmness of his own prostate.  Why do you think you can’t do prostate self-exams?  It’s reachable, with a bit of patience and some lube, and if it changes size or shape you need to get it checked out.  Same concept as a BSE – poke it regularly, report any changes.  I guess we need more educational campaigns aimed at men, huh?

      Now I wanna see the sexualized ad meant to increase awareness of prostate cancer early detection through self-exams.  It would be  a man in a vaguely sexy pose, covering his penis & testicles with one hand while reaching down toward his anus with the other, complete with glove and lube.  His face would not be shown; the picture would focus on his abs down.  Body posture strong, ab muscles showing, skin flawless and oiled-slash-photoshopped into an unnatural shininess.  But that would never exist outside of, maybe, a gay men’s magazine.  Because while a woman fondling herself is widely seen as doing so under the male gaze and for the benefit of men, a man doing so, well, that’s just gay.  Right?


      1. You have a good point there, especially as applies to this particular campaign.  Again, it doesn’t really seem like Wonder Woman would be doing a particularly effective self-examination with her corset on, and so it looks more like she’s doing something to benefit the ol’ Male Gaze rather than something private, matter-of-fact, and medically efficacious.  It looks like she’s fondling herself, and though that will attract plenty of eyeballs, it seems like it’ll attract more leers than it will educate anyone.

        Now, were she getting an actual boob-squishing mammogram, that might illustrate the mortality of superheroes (if that’s useful) without looking remotely sexualized.

        And now you have me wondering which would be the best way to probe my own prostate: reaching around from behind, or down and around from the front?  Hmm… guess it would be the latter.  And now I’m wondering who on this green earth could sexualize the image of me doing that.  Sadly, I fear there’s no audience for that, gay or straight.  Picking my nose might win me more fans.

        1.  Thanks – I’m glad to hear from someone who sees this similarly.  You’re totally right about the mammogram.  Those things are really, really uncomfortable at best.  My tech had to re-squish me about six times to get the angles she needed.  Ow ow ow ow ow.  I sometimes describe either the mammogram or the lovely procedure that is a pap smear to get the male-bodied folks around me to cringe – although I try not to bring it up unless they’re complaining about a prostate exam, which does not involve stirrups or a speculum.

          I’m fairly certain you’re correct about the better angle.  **grin**  And don’t go assuming there’s no audience…  this is the internet.  Whatever you can come up with, someone has already made porn of it. 

  10. Xeni you are right more – “I think more awareness and more data is generally a good thing…’  Seems mammography has something like 30% false negatives and positives from its scans.  These scans result in something like a years worth of radiation exposure so its not like you can just go take a bunch of them to be sure…  what we need is newer and more accurate and cheap tests.  I am so proud of my dad’s work with DARPA to create a x-ray light source that is ‘dim’ enough to see soft tissue with a portable machine.  This calls for phase contrast imaging (see link.)  This sort of device could have many far ranging effects beyond replacing our typical mammogram machines and images.

    This could help solve one of the most important things with cancer of any type which is early detection.

    Keep it up Xeni!

Comments are closed.