When sex advice columnist and LGBT activist Dan Savage wants to tell people to be brave, he often does not say they should "grow a pair" or "have some balls." He tells them to "ovary up."
It's a way of highlighting the choices we make with language – using slang for male genitalia to connote power, and not doing the same for female bodies. But while Mr. Savage's readers, or listeners to his podcast, may recognize the phrase and even use it themselves, it's not surprising that it has not caught on widely: The real words for anything defined as "private" parts – male and female – are not often used in polite conversation.
That has real implications for organizations attempting to draw attention to illnesses affecting parts of the body that are reproductive, sexualized or otherwise stigmatized. The marketing for causes related to them often relies on innuendo and tittering humour to overcome widespread discomfort with the subject matter.
Organizations raising funds and awareness for breast cancer organize events such as the "Boobyball" and sell merchandise branded with the message "save the ta-tas." (Or further sexualizing breasts with a T-shirt advising men to help with breast exams, saying, "Save a life! Grope your wife!") A campaign for Ovarian Cancer Canada, rather than using the word "ovaries," challenges people to have the "ladyballs" to help fight the disease.
Nor are women's parts the only ones judged unspeakable. A (frankly adorable) video launched in 2014 for Testicular Cancer Canada encouraged men to do regular self-exams on their "furballs," demonstrating the proper technique on a pair of guinea pigs.
Next week, men's health organization Movember is launching a campaign called "Know Thy Nuts," encouraging self-examinations in the shower with testicle-shaped soap that will be sold on its website. A men's cancer awareness campaign called "love the glove" encouraged men to get prostate exams with a video played for laughs – men's faces, in slow motion, as they had their prostates checked, over the soundtrack of Serge Gainsbourg's Je t'aime.
Last year, the backs of bus seats in Chicago were plastered with pictures of rear ends exposed by sagging pants, with the words "No one wants to see this except for your doctor." The ads were for the Meredith's Miracles Colon Cancer Foundation.
That's not to say that using humour is bad, or that these campaigns are necessarily offensive. But the fact that this type of tone is so widespread highlights just how ingrained the shame is – and how difficult it is to overcome for organizations working to keep those body parts healthy.
"Embarrassment is a factor," said Elisabeth Baugh, chief executive officer of Ovarian Cancer Canada. "It's a disease that hasn't at all been in common conversation. And we have, over the years, observed some real confusion about these body parts."
For example, a survey of 1,000 people conducted by the organization last year found that 44 per cent believe pap smears are a method of detection for ovarian cancer. (It very rarely is, although it can detect cervical cancer.)
"That stigma associated with female parts, we wanted to break that down," said Sue Kohm, a senior copywriter at ad agency Grey Canada who helped to create the campaign. "We needed to find a term people could use in daily conversation."
Since the "ladyballs" campaign launched, the organization has seen a 118-per-cent increase in women contacting the office seeking information. It has also received widespread media coverage. Not all of it was positive; some objected to the idea that the only way to talk about women's parts was to apply masculine slang to them.
But Renee Buerkle, a 35-year-old ovarian-cancer survivor living in Saint Andrews, N.B., shared it with her friends.
"I know it's a little rude, but at the end of the day, it still has people talking," she said. "They also have an event called the 'Walk for Her,' but people don't talk about that ... People are uncomfortable talking about cancer in general, but they're really uncomfortable talking about a woman's reproductive system. The more people talk about it, the more women can be aware that they need to take care of their bodies."
The organization is doubling down on the campaign this week, with the launch of a social-media push encouraging people to "show your ladyballs" by taking photos of themselves making circles with their fingers and placing them on their abdomens where their ovaries are.
Ovarian Cancer Canada has for years created educational videos and other material, all with a serious tone, featuring information on the disease and survivors' stories. But it has never seen as big a response as it has recently.
"It's been a complete game-changer for us," Ms. Baugh said.
People are already inclined to ignore ads, and a sensitive subject matter can raise their defences even more. Humour, cheeky images or casual language can all help to break the ice, and if it is provocative, it can help a message stand out for people who are subjected to thousands of advertising messages a day, said Charles Weinberg, a professor of marketing at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business and an expert in non-profit marketing.
"The question is, once they have your attention, what happens after that? Does that attention transfer to the cause?" Prof. Weinberg said. "The danger is that you spend so much effort going for the joke, but there won't really be a link between your cause and the joke."
Movember founder Adam Garone believes that joking around can be a "Trojan horse" for men who are reluctant to talk about their health. "You can't just put out a brochure," he said. In the case of the new "Testies" soap, "there's the novelty and hilarity of washing your face with a pair of balls … but sitting behind that are some very serious issues."
Some of the advertising has focused on the sexual nature of those body parts, to varying effect. The charity Rethink Breast Cancer received positive attention in the past for a mobile application that reminded women to do breast self-exams by showing them hunky half-naked men demonstrating the proper technique. (The app also added female models, although its marketing focused mostly on heterosexual users at first.)
In 2011, apparently working under the premise that sex sells, ad agency J. Walter Thompson London created a video for the Male Cancer Awareness Campaign featuring a lingerie model asking viewers, "Do you want to see me touch myself?" The oversexed video then surprises viewers when the model appears to expose very realistic-looking testicles and demonstrate the proper self-examination technique.
The fact that so much of the advertising around such causes either attempts to titillate or to make fun of the subject matter reflects our widespread discomfort, said Cory Silverberg, a sex educator and the author of the children's books Sex is a Funny Word and What Makes a Baby.
"All these ads rely on laughing at something that we are not past," he said. "We are not sexually evolved. We all still have shame about our bodies, which means these things are stigmatized."
If the ads start a conversation, he added, the net effect is positive.
"But unfortunately when we're presented with an opportunity to laugh at ourselves, I'm not sure we're doing ourselves any good," Mr. Silverberg said. "I think that we're mostly laughing at our embarrassment and shame. I'm not sure the ads are attacking the stigma."