Movember: just another gimmick?

Take a look at the guys around you this month and count how many of them are displaying more facial hair than usual.

Chalk it up to Movember, a global charity event that invites men to grow mustaches during November to raise awareness and money for men’s health. According to the website, the initiative had more than 854,000 participants – they’re known as “Mo Bros” – worldwide last year and raised $126 million on behalf of prostate and testicular cancer.

Well, fair enough. After all, the entire month of October is devoted to breast cancer awareness and fundraising and all things pink. Maybe it’s time men had their own health month.

But the critics are cautioning: Don’t be too quick to get behind this health campaign without asking more questions about what’s really being accomplished.

What is the substance behind the “awareness” the Movember campaign says it promotes? Take a look at the list of Movember health tips, which include a recommendation to get an annual physical: “Getting annual checkups, preventative screening tests and immunizations are among the most important things you can do to stay healthy.” Nary a mention is made of the debate surrounding the value of the yearly physical exam. Nor is there discussion about the risks vs. the benefits of prostate cancer screening, an issue that’s of considerable controversy amongst the medical and scientific community, or how men can weigh the evidence to make appropriate, informed decisions.

Another health checklist on the website advises men 40 and older to talk to their doctor about the use of aspirin and statins to lower their risk of heart disease, even though the preventive benefit of these two therapies has not been clearly established in people who don’t have existing heart disease.

Most would agree men are well served by education that gives them accurate, realistic information about their health. Are they served as well by information that’s overly simplified or that fails to adequately convey evidence-based pros and cons? Or by messages that confuse screening with prevention?

Perhaps the bigger issue is whether Movember, which started out with good intentions, is turning into a gimmick that allows people to feel good about a cause merely by growing a mustache and donating a few dollars.

Blogger Ashley Ashbee calls it “a type of slacktivism.”

“Does your moustache share information about the importance of screening, or where to get screened?” she wrote last year. “Does it tell you how you can prevent prostate cancer (if you even can)? Does it tell you the symptoms? Does it tell you who’s affected?”

Moreover, critics say one of the flaws of catchy public awareness campaigns, whether they’re exemplified by mustaches or by pink ribbons, is that they can skew the public’s perspective about risk and disease and lead to inaccurate or exaggerated beliefs that sometimes spill over into health-related behaviors. Although prostate cancer is far and away the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer among men in the United States, it’s actually lung cancer that is responsible for the most cancer deaths in men. Heart disease continues to be a significant health risk for men and, many would say, is the leading male health issue. Men also outnumber women when it comes to alcoholism, fatal traffic crashes and suicide.

To their credit, the Movember organizers added men’s mental health this year to their list of causes. But whether this helps improve the public’s understanding about male health remains to be seen.

The Toronto Globe and Mail spoke last week to medical ethicist Kerry Bowman of the University of Toronto, who lamented, “There’s not a direct relationship between the diseases we hear most about and either their occurrence in society or the lethality and the amount of suffering they create.”

Ideally, there should be a form of “ethical triage” that helps the public be better informed about the most widespread and urgent health care needs before donating their money to a cause, Bowman said. But for most fundraising campaigns, this kind of analysis is “very much lost,” he said.

9 thoughts on “Movember: just another gimmick?

  1. Hi Anna,

    Thank you for quoting me and linking to my blog post! Your blog is awesome; you’re a great writer and researcher and your header is great. Glad to discover another socially responsible health blogger.

    I think you hit the nail right on the head about a bigger reason why Movember is a big problem: the information it DOES include is misleading, quite unfounded and redundant. For that reason, I’m almost glad the awareness portion is mostly absent from individuals’ campaigns, I’m sorry to say.

    YES Movember definitely oversimplifies the issue. Movember participants aren’t aware of this. Well, maybe some are, but they either don’t care or they don’t see the danger.

    -Ashley

    • I think campaigns such as Movember generally start with good intentions but the message is sometimes designed more for popular appeal than to convey science-based facts. If guys want to participate in Movember, that’s great, but I would hope it encourages them to think beyond what’s on the surface.

      Thank you for stopping by, and keep up the great work!

  2. In 2007, 70 354 American women died of lung cancer, and 40 460 American women died of breast cancer.

    “Do pink ribbons share information about the importance of screening, or where to get screened? Do they tell you how you can prevent breast cancer (if you even can)? Do they tell you the symptoms? Do they tell you who’s affected?”

    By your logic we should also be outraged at breast cancer awareness month, because it’s misleading women away from their own number one cause of cancer death.

    Why are you attacking this movement again? What is actually so wrong with it that you had to write an entire article, grossly exaggerating the flaws of this well meaning, well acting movement towards raising awareness Men’s health? You also totally gloss over the fact that Movember is becoming a more holistic movement, devoting nary two sentences to the virtues of this campaign.

    What is the purpose of this article?

    • I’m not sure what you mean by “again.” I’ve only blogged about this once, and if you look at the date of the post, you’ll see it was written over a year ago. I’ve also blogged about the pink ribbon movement, as have tons of other commentators, advocates and bloggers. Your assertion that breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women needs to be corrected; the leading cause of cancer deaths among U.S. females actually is lung cancer.

      While I applaud those who mean well, their good intentions should not grant them a free pass to gloss over the science. I’d be the first person to admit the media have often been complicit in oversimplifying the issues. Asking questions and seeking transparency is not automatically bad.

      Edited to add: I’m sorry I missed seeing your first sentence; comments don’t always display well in the WordPress dashboard. Your statistics are correct, and I agree with many other critics that the pink-ribbon movement may be skewing accurate perceptions of women’s health risks.

  3. All campaigns will have spin-off’s or yahoo’s, Movember is not immune to this. But to print an article criticizing a month on Men’s health awareness and not on any other health awareness campaign leads me to believe that you have little respect for Men.

    You should have written an article on health awareness drives in general and the side shows that pop up instead of picking one specifically that does not cover you.

    Next time writing an article, remember Journalists are to be objective, and not subjective.

    • Gregg,

      Balance and objectivity in journalism refers to different perspectives of the same topic, not coverage of multiple topics (campaigns) in a single piece. There is nothing wrong with writing about a single topic in one post.

      It is illogical to suggest that the author “disrespects” men because she criticizes a campaign for a disease that happens to exclusively impact them. Her choice to criticize a single campaign doesn’t indicate that she is biased or imbalanced.

      I’ve seen Movember critics falsely characterized this way many times and it’s unfortunate that important discussion about prostate cancer is being derailed.

      Anne doesn’t refer to gender here and her arguments and themes can easily and be applied to many campaigns for many diseases that affect men, women and both. Anne wouldn’t advocate for better awareness and research for a men’s disease if she disrespected men.

      We’re not talking about a few “yahoo” Movember participants. We are criticizing a movement that, as a whole, oversimplifies screening and treatment, when there is awareness in participation at all. The fun of the moustache has totally overshadowed important issues.

      We need better awareness and action to improve screening and treatment, reduce environmental impact and improve treatment access. In my extensive exposure to Movember and research of participation in the campaign, I have never seen or heard any participant discuss or advocate action on these issues.

      It’s great that Movember raises money for prostate cancer, assuming it goes to the right place, but that’s not enough and it doesn’t mitigate the problems of Movember.

      -Ashley

  4. The way charity events such as this normally work is by the person raising money, not awareness. That money is then given to an organisation that funds research into cures and treatment and awareness campaigns. So growing a.moustache in itself does no more than running a marathon or wearing a pink ribbon.”The fun of growing a moustache” has not overshadowed anything at all, the Mo-bros themselves were never expected to personally spread any message or raise awareness.

    I fail to see how Movember has manage to attract the level of criticism it now seems to be getting. They may not be spending money in ways that people personally agree with but that is true of just about any charity you could name. Every problem has multiple solutions and we all have an opinion on which solution is best and we can be quite vitriolic when criticising people for doing things differently to how we think they should be done. But that doesn’t mean that the intention is any less valid. Movember is one of the few charities focusing on men’s health issues that is gaining any real success and, more importantly, buy in and participation from men. suggest we let them keep doing what they’re doing, they’ll figure it out.

    • Paul,

      When we recommend prostate cancer screening, there are real risks to excluding information about its risks and limitations.

      Also, the scale of Movember participation presents an enormous opportunity — and responsibility — to produce incredibly important awareness and action for prostate cancer. If we choose not to accomplish or even attempt that in a campaign that has hundreds of thousands, if not millions of participants, and (or because it) raises a lot of money, we need to reevaluate the campaign. And our society.

      You say “Movember is one of the few charities focusing on men’s health issues.” Doesn’t that make it even more important for us to demand the best from this campaign for prostate cancer? Shouldn’t limited (or perceived limited) work on men’s health compel us to set a new precedent of awareness and action on its behalf?

      -Ashley

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