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Yael Cohen is the president and founder of a cancer charity with a controversial name. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Yael Cohen is the president and founder of a cancer charity with a controversial name. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

How edgy can fundraising be without putting people off? Add to ...

The Question

I’ve seen a lot of people wearing those bracelets that say “I love boobies,” to support breast cancer research. I know the money is going to a good cause, but it seems a bit inappropriate. Am I overthinking this, or is it okay to be inappropriate for a worthy cause?

The Answer

In 2009, Yael Cohen’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Watching her mother battle the disease, feeling the strain and exhaustion as the family coped together, 25-year-old Ms. Cohen, who lives in Vancouver, wanted to support her mother and make a clear statement that cancer would not destroy their lives. She presented her mother with a T-shirt that simply read: F*ck Cancer (asterisk is ours).

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Ms. Cohen’s mom proudly wore the shirt out and around, and they were amazed at the reaction from people on the street.

“It opened up people to talk to her,” says Ms. Cohen. “These two words let people feel brave enough to be authentic.”

She argues there is still a societal reticence to openly discuss cancer and its effect on people’s lives. She believes the raw emotional sentiment behind her campaign breaks down the barriers and gets people talking. That’s why she founded an organization named after that T-shirt.

While Ms. Cohen’s family was launching their fight against cancer in 2009, the youth wing of Canada’s Green Party was also dropping the F-bomb in a campaign to engage young people in political activism. Their campaign slogan, which suggested parents had messed with the planet, generated some hot online debate between supporters who saw it as an effective way to get the attention of youth, and those who both disliked the profanity and felt the slogan drove an unnecessary confrontational wedge between generations.

Of course profanity is not the only way of crossing lines to raise awareness and money for a cause. Keep A Breast Foundation’s “I love boobies” is hardly profanity, but critics have panned it for pandering to the objectification and sexualization of women’s bodies.

In Quebec, as part of the ongoing protests against tuition hikes, students took to the streets in only their underwear to draw attention, discomfit police, and denounce government attempts to outlaw the wearing of masks during demonstrations.

And last year, after a Toronto police officer publicly suggested women could avoid rape if they stopped dressing like “sluts,”,Toronto women organized the first “Slutwalk” to uphold everyone’s right to wear what they want without fearing violence. Slutwalks are now taking place around the world.

Are these campaigns effective? “People wouldn’t do them if they didn’t work,” says Kadi Kaljuste, a senior vice-president with PR firm Hill + Knowlton, who helps lead their “Good Works” campaigns team.

Ms. Kaljuste is not aware of any hard research on the demographic appeal of shock campaigns, but as an expert in the field she says, “I would venture that the more in-your-face campaigns are more targeted to a younger demo, who expect more in-your-face marketing.”

Ms. Cohen notes that, while her campaign does focus on Generation Y – 17- to 25-year-olds – they still receive surprising support from those 55 years and older.

Shock campaigns can have drawbacks. “The risk is trivializing the cause,” says Ms. Kaljuste. Ms. Cohen admits, “There are not many businesses that want to associate with a name like ours.”

Nevertheless, she feels her organization is having success in raising youth awareness about breast cancer and she attributes that to authentic emotion, rather than a desire to shock. “You have to be passionate and authentic. If you’re doing it to shock or offend, people will see right through it.”

So where is the line? When is inappropriate not appropriate for supporting a worthy cause? We think you have to decide that for yourself. Draw your own lines and vote with your actions and your donation dollars.

Our father was a teacher of languages, English and French, so we were raised in the belief that resorting to profanity reflects a failure to communicate effectively. For our part, we believe messages of hope and inspiration are the best path to bringing positive change.

We’d love to see comments posted here, telling us your thoughts on this question.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.

 

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