Men across the country have spent the past three weeks purposefully trying to grow a trucker, porn-star or other favourite mustache style to raise money for prostate-cancer research.
The official merchandise of the month-long effort, Movember, features a T-shirt emblazoned with a hot dog wearing sunglasses and sporting a mustache.
Feeling left out, a group of women from the men's lifestyle website Asylum.com created a public-service-style video urging females to fight cancer by having sex with a guy with a mustache on Nov. 18.
"You're not a whore if it's for charity," says one of the women in the video, which has been viewed more than 313,000 times on YouTube since it was posted mid-month.
Hang on, what kind of charitable movement is this? At a time when ribbons and bracelets created by charities dominate awareness-raising campaigns, Movember is unique in that it combines the marketing of a certain lifestyle with fundraising. Although Movember has become a multimillion-dollar charitable powerhouse with corporate sponsorships, the grassroots origins have allowed it to put a jovial spin on a serious disease.
But as the phenomenon grows, it raises questions about whether the mustache is overshadowing the cause for which it is being grown – or if that even matters.
Is it a grassroots movement where anything goes, so long as the money is donated to a good cause? Or does the campaign's emphasis on mustache culture, risqué jokes and gentleman's lifestyle risk undermining its goals?
Movember – which combines Mo, Australian slang for mustache, and November – was started in 2003 as a joke over beers among friends in Melbourne. The dare evolved the next year into a fundraising campaign for prostate cancer; then the campaign went viral, spreading to countries including New Zealand, Spain and South Africa.
In Canada, the first official Movember campaign was launched in 2007, and last year the country was second only to Australia in participation and fundraising, collecting nearly $8-million for Prostate Cancer Canada. Across the country this year, there are more than 100,000 participants and the campaign has already raised more than $10-million, surpassing the official goal.
The Movember website features videos of mustached men in suits; Swedish-Canadian actress Malin Akerman strutting down the street wearing an "I Heart Mo" T-shirt; and an interactive "Lodge," dressed up with deer heads, which is essentially a dark-panelled ode to the "stache."
Every year there are Mo-related parties throughout the month, highlighted by "Gala Partés" in major cities across Canada to mark the end of the campaign. At the galas, awards are given out, homecoming-style, for Man of Movember and Miss Movember.
Major companies have jumped on board to donate money and promote their products, including Canadian Club and Mercedes-Benz. Energizer Canada Inc., which sells Schick products, has been using the month to give away razors on the streets of Toronto and do other promotions related to Movember.
Those types of corporate sponsorships with charities can be problematic, said Kim Irish, program manager at San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action, because the motives of the company often aren't aligned with the charity's. "We think it's really more about corporations trying to look good to the public to sell more products," she said.
Ms. Irish has criticized companies that sell pink products for breast cancer even when the products are linked to the disease, or when only a fraction of proceeds goes to the charity. Such campaignsrisk trivializing cancer, she said.
"Cancer is not a lifestyle. I think it makes light of the seriousness of the disease and the person's health being at stake."
Catherine Patterson, marketing and communications manager for Prostate Cancer Canada, which has a partnership with the Movember Foundation, said the campaign encourages people to have fun. Even though some people may regard certain elements, such as the video encouraging women to have sex with a mustached man, as going too far, Movember is accomplishing its goals by raising awareness, she said.
"Sometimes the messaging is not always right, but I think that people always have their heart in the right place," Ms. Patterson said.
Men who grow mustaches during the month are part of a "brotherhood" that opens the door in a lighthearted manner to discussing prostate cancer, normally a taboo subject, Ms. Patterson said.
"Men have a much more comfortable time making a joke out of things," she said. "The mustache makes things a little bit more lighthearted and I'll joke with you about a mustache, and maybe we can joke about prostate cancer."
But even those discussions are raising red flags. Prostate Cancer Canada, Movember and many participants have become strong advocates for screening and early detection. Yet, the prostate-specific antigen test, or PSA, has been riddled with controversy after research showed it may not decrease death rates and could heighten the risk of false positives and unnecessary medical procedures.
Many doctors urge caution over screening and the Canadian Cancer Society says men 50 and older should discuss it with their doctors.
Despite the risks, Neil Fleshner, head of the urology division at University Health Network in Toronto, said men should be aware that screening can help. He added that this area of medicine is in flux and that it's important to reduce the number of men who are treated unnecessarily.
"As long as it's getting more men to their doctors and getting more money for research, then I'm okay with it," he said.