Insights: Advertising WHAT???

Nizarys Vargas

Sarah Roman

Under the direction of sociologist Dr. Omar Nagi at the College of Mount of Saint Vincent, undergraduate students Nizarys Vargas, a senior majoring in business administration (minoring sociology) and Sarah Roman, a sociology major (minoring in psychology), developed a research project to analyze breast cancer advertising. Dr. Nagi taught chapters of Gayle Sulik’s book “Pink Ribbon Blues” and offered to provide supervision on the project. Sarah had already been working with Dr. Nagi for two years on a project investigating the effects of media on eating disorders. Both women were surprised to learn that something as serious as cancer could be repackaged in ways that sexualize women and hide the disease. Vargas and Roman then presented their study at the Eastern Sociological Society meeting in New York on a panel with Gayle Sulik. They share their research process here.

In our everyday lives we see images everywhere that try to sell us things or influence are thinking. Some ads are simple and clear about what they’re trying to get across, but others hide behind misleading messages. One of the most widespread examples is using sex to advertise. This technique is even used in breast cancer awareness campaigns and the ads associated with breast cancer cause marketing. The images are sexualized to get the attention of consumer markets. In the process, do consumers even know what it is that’s being bought and sold in the name of the cause? Have the ads lost the real messages of breast cancer advocacy?

To find out we are embarking on a study of college students that will test the impact of common advertising imagery. We want to find out whether other people are as confused by what the images represent as we are.

Here is the study:

In controlled environments, we will test a series of propositions. First, will people find the sexualized images of breast cancer compared to ads for other products indistinguishable? If this is the case, it is evidence that breast cancer marketing imagery is (at least sometimes) becoming homogenously sexualized. Second, we will give a presentation of images to find out whether the focus on sex in the ads has become the primary focus of the consumer’s attention, with the product or message being forgotten. We’ll start by asking some simple questions.

What is this an advertisement for?

Could it be perfume or body powder? Could it be sheets? Perhaps an art museum? Or could it be breast cancer? If breast cancer wasn’t your first guess, then you’re not alone. It wasn’t obvious to us either. It’s an advertisement for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Can you tell which of the images below is for Victoria’s Secret, and which one represents breast cancer?



It wasn’t obvious to us either. Image A is an ad for Victoria’s Secret, and Image B is a photograph taken from Scootercafe during a “we love boobs” party in London. Allegedly, all of the money went to a charity for breast cancer prevention.

Let’s try again. Victoria’s Secret or Breast Cancer Awareness?



Hard to tell them apart?

Image B is a breast cancer awareness advertisement though it could just as easily be used to sell Victoria’s Secret lingerie, as advertised in Image A. Women’s bodies, or parts of them, take priority and are embellished with lace, or very little clothing at all.

Finally, can you tell which image is an ad for cancer awareness, and which one is an ad for perfume? 



In this case, the trend is broken. The ad on the right is about breast cancer. The woman does not fit the sex symbol imagery of the other ads. Her body is not revealed. She does not appear to be wearing much, or any, makeup. Instead of her body taking priority, the ad focuses on her face.

For our research, we present images similar to these to determine whether the messages are clear to consumers, or whether they are lost to the most conventional media strategy of all time; selling sex and women’s bodies. People might think we are researching the “obvious.” We would agree with that. It seems obvious to us that corporations use sex to sell. Is it also true that some breast cancer awareness campaigns use blatant sex to spread some kind of message? But what is the impact of sexualizing breast cancer messages for consumers? How do they “read” them and interpret them? This is what we want to know.

As young women, we do not “love boobies” in the same way many advertisers, or maybe even many men, do. But we do love our bodies because we love ourselves. Isn’t that enough? We wish the advertising industry would use its considerable talent and influence to help us spread a new message of awareness that doesn’t whittle women down to our most basic parts.

But who knows, maybe other people see it differently. That’s what our research intends to find out.

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