#Selfies for Charity – the PR tightrope

Barbie without makeup

First we had the seemingly naughty “where you put your handbag” status, swiftly followed by the “colour of your underwear” status. And this year is no exception, with the latest craze sweeping social media in a supposed effort to raise awareness of cancer with the no-make-up-selfie photos.

The first social campaign of this kind back in 2010 with it’s “don’t tell the boys” element was a success in terms of going viral, as the phrase ‘I like it on the floor’ became one of the top searches online. But while the phrase spread widely, whether it actually achieved the objective of raising awareness of the fatal disease was less clear.

A spokesman for Breast Cancer Care at the time said the charity was not affiliated with the campaign;

“While viral campaigns have great potential for increasing consciousness around many issues, we’d like to see this go further.”

Of course they would. Because awareness isn’t all that is needed. I find this a lot in public awareness campaigns (or calls for them). The majority of us know how serious cancer is. For most cancers we all know the signs and how to check ourselves, or how to get tested by a medical practitioner.

Often it’s not awareness we need. It’s the motivation to push for testing and results when we feel something is wrong with us. Not burying our heads in the sand and not allowing doctors to make us feel a nuisance.

Charities doing good work also need something more than awareness, even though a large part of their remit is to raise it among the public consciousness. They need funds. And this is where the unofficial social media crazes can become a backlash for the very charities they deem to want to help. This year, again, Cancer Research UK and Macmillan have both said this is not an official campaign:

Cancer Research selfies trend statement

Some people have now been careful to prove they have made a small donation while posting their “selfie” because the nature of their involvement in the phenomenon is being questioned. What difference are you making? How will this help? For the first year ever, the negativity is growing.

My only issue with it, from a PR standpoint, is that it has become confusing this year. Previous campaigns were specifically about breast cancer. They took place in October and the element of confusing men by women secretly emailing each other showed a mass grass-roots movement of women together. In some ways, the selfie is going one step further because it is a dare among women. It’s challenging them to do something that can be frightening to many (depending on the level of cosmetics they put on each day!)

But the message is confusing. Is it for skin cancer? Which would make sense. Is it for cancer in general? Or is it for breast cancer, just in the wrong month? Is it, as some media outlets suggest, actually a follow-on from an American trend of “raw” selfies which appeared to be in solidarity with actress Kim Novak, who was criticized for her physical appearance at the Academy Awards earlier this month? It also lacks authority because it is unmanaged. People began claiming that TV presenter Holly Willoughby had got involved, when actually her own “no makeup” selfie was posted on her Twitter almost a year ago.

Holly Willoughby without makeup

The backlash seems to stem from the fact that selfies as a genre of photograph are seen as narcissistic, that they are taken by people who gloat in their appearance and that this, to them, is some kind of competition to see who looks the best sans-slap. But plenty of other organisations have used selfies as a promotional or campaigning tool, from the New York Public Library to our very own Visit Belfast with its @LovinBelfast galleries.

Of course the old adage remains true “all publicity is good publicity.” Hopefully a percentage of those getting involved online will, as a result, venture to check out a website on symptoms, or perhaps the next time they pass a charity donation box they’ll pop in some loose change.

Also, as a woman, I can’t argue with anything that encourages women to celebrate their natural selves. But the question remains, where can this trend go? Whatever will we be daring each other to do next year…


  1. […] And finally, the week came to a close with the soap-opera style ups and downs of the #NoMakeupSelfie social media craze to raise awareness of cancer. The cosmetic-free self portraits caused a backlash of claims that raising awareness wasn’t enough. Thankfully, there was a happy ending though, as Cancer Research UK announced they had received £1,000,000 in one day through text donations from selfie participants. If you want to read more, I wrote about it on my blog! […]

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