Popular health campaigns aren’t always the most productive, says new study

Researchers have found that just because a public health campaign is popular among the digital community, it doesn’t mean it will produce gains in healthy behavior. This study, published in Lancet Oncology, concludes that in addition to attractive slogans or easy-to-understand captions and images, the relevance of the focused health issue to the target audience and to current guidelines may guide audience behavior.

The current study looked at two cancer campaigns, called Pinktober and Movember, which is focused on breast cancer and prostate cancer (among other men’s health issues), respectively.


It was in 1985 that the American Cancer Society and AstraZeneca jointly launched Breast Awareness Month in October, symbolized by the iconic pink ribbon, to increase public awareness of the danger of breast cancer, the importance of early screening and diagnosis, and of funding research into improved therapies to enhance the survival and quality of life of patients with breast cancer. It’s also about rejoicing with those who have pushed back the disease in their own lives. Of course, it’s also time for some dubious profiteers to make a quick buck out of appealing to popular sympathies about breast cancer victims. And it’s also a grim reminder of just how much remains to be done to “cure” breast cancer, especially in stage 4.

Image Credit: Cherries / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Cherries / Shutterstock


Movember is a global charity that invests in raising awareness about the health issues that plague men. It is also the name of an annual event that encourages men to grow moustaches to stimulate public interest in these issues, particularly prostate and testicular cancer, and men’s mental health issues, especially suicide. The aim is to increase the rate of early cancer detection, diagnosis and treatment by proper screening, thus ultimately bringing down the number of men who die too young due to a preventable illness.

How do they affect health behaviors?

Both these campaigns enjoy equal online popularity and both last for a month. The researchers therefore did a comparative analysis of the efforts made by the population following each of these campaigns to learn more about the targeted health issues, as shown by an increased use of keywords linked to each campaign, and an increased frequency of the desired health behaviors that ought to be the result of successfully increasing general awareness of the health condition focused on by the campaign.

The researchers made use of Google Trends search data, to track keywords such as Pinktober, Breast Cancer and Mammography for the Pinktober campaign; but Movember, Mustaches, and PSA or PSA Test for the Movember campaign.

Image Credit: SewCream / Shutterstock
Image Credit: SewCream / Shutterstock

In the case of Pinktober, people appeared to search for terms related to breast cancer most frequently in October, the month of the campaign. However, there was no corresponding surge in the number of web searches for prostate cancer in November despite the campaign’s timing that month. On the other hand, Movember has succeeded in raising over $700 million for funding research into prostate cancer since its inception.

The popular appeal of both campaigns seems to be very similar. Both exploit strong visual tags (pink ribbons for Pinktober, and mustaches for Movember) that make them likely to rank high for online visibility. On the other hand, says researcher Giovanni Cacciamani, “However, a successful health awareness campaign will need to go beyond reach and virality to ensure that the public understands the call to action.”

How they are different

The difference lies, therefore, in the health behavior that is sought to be encouraged. This may be because Pinktober focuses on regular breast cancer screening for women who may probably turn for more information to the Internet. However, Movember targets young media-friendly males who like growing out their whiskers for a variety of selfies, which can be put up on various social media platforms, but are not at risk for prostate cancer. The men at risk are actually older than the set who actively take part in this primarily social media-run campaign.

Of course, there is a simpler explanation. From 2012 on, the number of participants registering for Movember and the total donations started to fall. This coincided with the new recommendations of the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) against routine prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing. The USPSTF) later upgraded these guidelines, to recommend that men aged 55-69 years discuss PSA testing with their doctors.

The study therefore means that follow up is important to understand how people actually modify their health behavior subsequent to a health campaign. This will help doctors and others involved in spreading medical awareness to achieve a more meaningful result, while also fighting the spread of fake information.

Journal reference:

Cancer awareness crusades—pink ribbons and growing moustaches, Giovanni E Cacciamani, Mariana C Stern Luis G Medina, Karanvir Gill, Rene Sotelo, Inderbir S Gill, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(19)30639-4/fulltext

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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