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Sex sells breast cancer awareness message

The risque ad may resemble a beer commercial, but it's really a public service announcement for Toronto's annual Boobyball party to benefit the charity Rethink Breast Cancer. It's just one of the edgier ways awareness is being promoted among younger women.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A woman in a skimpy white bikini sashays next to a swimming pool. Onlookers gawk, men's tongues roll and music blares in the background.

The camera zooms in slow motion to her jiggling chest as a message spreads across the screen: "You know you like them/ Now it's time to save the boobs."

It may resemble a beer commercial, but it's really a public service announcement for Toronto's annual Boobyball party to benefit the charity Rethink Breast Cancer, and it's gone viral, with more than 350,000 hits on YouTube. It's just one of the edgier ways awareness is being promoted among younger women during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

"Generally, with people my age, who watch MTV, there's no association between the breast and breast cancer. They think the boobs in beer commercials are different," said MTV News Canada host Aliya-Jasmine Sovani, 27, who stars as the bikini-clad gal and wrote and co-directed the clip.

"But everyone uses sexy imagery for commercials," said Sovani. "I thought guys would watch it because they would watch it naturally, and girls would like the humor and irony. ... We all like boobs, we all celebrate boobs, so let's save the boobs."

Similar messages are showing up on feisty T-shirt lines and at events aimed at younger women. According to leading breast cancer organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure, about 5 percent of all breast cancer in the United States occurs in women under age 40. Worldwide, about 465,000 women die from breast cancer each year.

Levity of boob jokesJulia Fikse, a bubbly 37-year-old, started her cheekily named T-shirt business Save the Ta-tas in 2004 after years of working as a fashion designer at Levi's, Gymboree and Adidas.

Her Southern California company now has 12 full-time employees producing T-shirts that proclaim "caught you lookin' at my ta-tas" and "I love my big ta-tas." Five percent of every sale goes to breast cancer research and awareness. About $340,000 dollars have been donated so far, Fikse said.

The idea came after seeing people close to her battle breast cancer.

Fikse's grandmother had a double mastectomy in the '70s. In 2004, her husband's aunt was diagnosed.

"For the first time in my life, I thought about what it must be like to lose your breasts and how horrible that must be," she said. "My husband and I were in this dark place, thinking of her. Then we started to joke about boobs. The levity of the boob jokes turned that dark spirit around."

Fikse got a list together of 10 slang words for breasts, and bounced the names off of her husband. He laughed at the word "ta-tas," and it stuck.

Men's involvement, noted Fikse, was paramount. Her company has T-shirts for men with slogans "my girl has great ta-tas" and "save a life, grope your wife."

"Men have an ability to take it into a sexual place very fast," Fikse said. "But you can turn an awkward, sexual conversation into something awesome about breast cancer awareness."

A serious pointThe PSA starring Sovani has obvious appeal for men, but it was created to promote Boobyball, the bash started by Amanda Blakley and Ashleigh Dempster in 2002 to lift the spirits of their friend Sarah, diagnosed at age 23 with advanced breast cancer.

The event, geared toward people 30 and under, has raised thousands of dollars annually. Thanks to the video's media attention, this year's event sold out within 48 hours, Sovani said.

The tongue-in-cheek message makes a serious point, said Rethink Breast Cancer founder and executive director MJ DeCoteau: Information on breast cancer has been mostly directed toward older women. DeCoteau was 22 when her mother died from the disease.

"I remember grabbing a pamphlet with a 60-year-old woman on the cover. Another one had a dark shadowy woman facing the corner. It looked quite fearful," said DeCoteau, now 39. "Taking control of your breast help should be positive and upbeat."

The organization tries to reach a younger audience with initiatives like the Breast Fest Film Festival and the Booby Innovation Grant. Not everyone is comfortable with such boundary-pushing campaigns. Susan G. Komen for the Cure founder Nancy Brinker voiced reservations about using sexy imagery, though said she wouldn't discredit what anyone else does.

Brinker's organization recently started a Passionately Pink for the Cure fundraising program with Hanes and 33-year-old "Scrubs" actress Sarah Chalke, who designed a graphic tee after she lost her aunt and grandmother to breast cancer.

"Why would we compromise our serious work with something that would offend somebody?" asked Brinker, who lost her sister, the organization's namesake, to the disease at 36, and who was herself diagnosed two years later. "We don't feel we have to shock. The disease is a shock."

Sovani brushes off comments that her video may be inappropriate.

Two days before the video shoot, Sovani learned that her cousin, a mother of two in her early 30s, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She notes how proud her cousin is now of her, and the video.

"Whether you love it or hate it, it gets people talking," she said. "Breast cancer is scary. We're not trying to take away from that. But preventing breast cancer doesn't have to be scary. If it's made to be scary, people don't want to check as much."