Facing up to cancer

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'Thank you - you're amazing' Cancer Research UK
'Thank you - you're amazing' Cancer Research UK


The ‘No Make-Up Selfie’ campaign for Cancer Awareness raised more than £8m for Cancer Research UK in six days.

The craze saw tens of thousands of women sharing pictures of themselves wearing no make-up on social media sites to raise funds for cancer.

Campaigners nominated other friends on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and pledged donations – 80p in every £1 donated went to the charity. The #nomakeupselfie trend went viral with 826,000 likes on Facebook and 140,000 followers on Twitter. BBC News reported that even a Virgin cabin crew joined it.

This community-generated campaign attracted the endorsement of the charity and wide coverage. Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, commented:

“We have been overwhelmed by the support people have been showing us through the #nomakeupselfie trend. We don’t receive any government funding for our research and so it is phenomenal to think that the generosity of the public is enabling us to fund critical research that we didn’t have the money for six days ago. Being able to fund more trials will bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.”

The ‘no-make up selfie’ effect

‘Selfie’ was named by the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary as word of 2013. The ‘selfie effect’ for cancer awareness surpassed the ‘Angelina Jolie Effect’, which attracted worldwide media buzz and doubled breast removal practices in the UK. It was an unprecedent fundraising event – different from the previous cake sales, marathons or sponsored events. The fundraising appeal through digital marketing went viral on social feeds and kept cancer research at the forefront of people’s minds.

A new narrative in the cancer battle was created by this phenomenal example of a ‘me-media’ campaign. The success on Facebook among millions of digital natives is not a surprise: our lives are increasingly mediated through social media spaces.

A global community shared the message and donated via mobile devices. Those millions of selfies sent to CRUK demonstrated that a collective action through social media is more powerful than a TV appeal. In 1964 McLuhan had written that ‘the medium is the message’; with social media the medium is the community.

Cancer is the global illness of our century, so many people have been affected or have died from the disease. There are hundreds of different types of cancer. People with cancer face a huge battle that lasts for their whole life, if they overcome the disease. Cancer care needs practical, medical, emotional and financial support as well as ethical PR practices.

‘Prevention’ is the most cost-effective long-term strategy for the control of cancer: this message should always be at the core of cancer awareness campaigns.

Self-acting campaigns for togetherness

In the last decade we have seen ordinary people appearing in both commercial and social campaigns. Swatch Faces app is the core of the company’s consumer strategy; the #ashwednesdayselfie trend was launched by CAFOD to tackle climate change.

The #nomakeupselfie campaign for cancer embraced the charity’s core positioning of “together we can beat cancer” and “our progress is your progress”.

Not by chance did this campaign became popular through Facebook, the ‘book of faces’.

In September Cancer Research UK refreshed its look by launching a new logo for the first time in a decade – a brand change to better engage with consumers and boost donations. Richard Taylor, executive director of fundraising and marketing at Cancer Research UK, explained that “What we do is save lives, and that’s what the brand is about.” The branding agency Interbrand created a refresh that communicates a “bolder, warmer, more confident” and “less clinical” brand persona that consumers will find easier to connect to.

The use of celebrity trends added value to this social media campaign which came a few weeks after the celebrity Oscars selfie.

‘Ordinary’ women have now used the same technique to raise awareness of a major illness, show their solidarity with cancer sufferers and remember those who fight the disease. The campaign also copied the ‘NekNominate‘ trend, fuelled by the popular talent-show culture.

Getting a PR campaign off the ground requires strategic planning and effective management. Social media networks challenge PR theory. Simply creating a selfie, a slogan and a call to donate has empowered anyone to be a campaigner. The self-acting campaign for CRUK changed the standard practices of PR campaigns. People felt part of a movement by joining thousands of people in the UK and worldwide in taking action against cancer.

Effective practice or vanity armchair action?

Women raised funds by using their natural look. Yet this powerful message faced criticism. For many this narcissist use of social media turned cancer into a “women’s issue”, something that started from a feminist movement for self-confidence and affirmation.

The proliferation of self-portraits seems a vane self-promotion, rather than a way to change the reality of cancer. Was it a vanity photo competition using cancer awareness as a cover of respectabilty, or a practical way to advocate a good cause?

The same has happened with the ‘Movember’ charity event to raise awareness of prostate cancer. The significance of the message can be lost in the fun of the ‘selfie’ trend.

Wearing no make-up for a cancer campaign is a new trend that started in late 2013 with the online retailer Escentual’s ‘Dare to Bare’ Breast Cancer Awareness month campaign. People could identify through the selfie trend and share stories. The #nomakeupselfie trend was about identity, authenticity, beauty – and we can expect more campaigns to tap into these trends.