Facebook Bra Color Meme: So, Did It Work?

Lori Halley 08 January 2010 10 comments

Many women (and, apparently, some men) flooded Facebook with unusual status updates over the past two days in a meme calling on “girls” to post the colors of the bras they were wearing, ostensibly to raise awareness of breast cancer.

@jeffsmyth status update on TwitterSocial media responded to the stunt with a certain amount of tee-heeing and innuendo; with calls for a comparable “game for the guys” about underwear choices; with cries of “TMI” (Too Much Information); balanced with expressions of support and noticeable efforts to extend the meme to Twitter.

But hours after tech news site Mashable posted its widely-retweeted explanation of the mysterious Facebook updates (Sharing Your Bra Color Is the New 25 Things on Facebook), confusion about the color status updates is still widespread.

Conflicting Messages & Mysterious Source

It turns out, there’s a good reason for a certain amount of confusion around this particular meme. Sure, we have to expect a loss of focus whenever a message goes viral, but "there's no real 'control' to this viral campaign," as Nathania Johnson points out (What Color is Your Bra? TMI for a Cause on Facebook Goes Awry): "Unfortunately, though this began with good intentions, it's reminiscent of what ultimately drove people away from MySpace."

And, in fact, at least two very different versions of the “call to action” email made the rounds.

Compare:

“We are playing a game and you have to write the colour of your bra in your status… just the colour and send this to all your girlfriends NO MEN so that we can see how many women change their status and we will have the guys wondering what all the women are doing with just a colour posted…Please play this is from a friend in the states..lets see how far we can reach…..copy and past this in your email”

and

“Some fun is going on… just write the colour of your bra in your status. Just the colour, nothing else. And send this on to ONLY girls, no men… It will be neat to see if this will spread the wings of cancer awareness. It will be fun to see how long it takes before the men will wonder why all the girls have a colour in their status. Copy and paste and send.”

Notice that the first message sells the bra color status updates as nothing more than a girls-only Facebook game “to have all the guys wondering… see how far we can reach”; the second makes the connection to cancer awareness in general. A third variation, widely posted online, does specify breast cancer awareness as the purpose of the meme.

  • So, did the meme start as a sophomoric Facebook game that, somewhere along the way, was transformed into a campaign for breast cancer awareness?
  • Or did the cause of breast cancer awareness get dropped, in some versions of the email message, in the viral rush?
  • Or was the whole thing an undercover campaign started by the organizations themselves, as some skeptics are starting to suggest?

There’s no way to know which version of the email message came first, how widely spread each version was, or how many other variations made the rounds in the past two days. What we do know for sure is that a percentage of the women who posted their bra colors to Facebook had no idea of the purpose for sharing that personal information with their online acquaintances.

The origins of the meme will most likely remain a mystery. And that’s fine, the origins probably don’t matter very much in the long run.

But users of the social web — and nonprofits who may be contemplating some sort of similar viral social-network-based campaign of their own — are left with a whole lot of questions about the impact, the results, the implications of this cheeky little Facebook meme. Here are a few of mine:

  • Does it matter that some women (and some men, to their subsequent embarrassment) posted colors in their Facebook status updates, not knowing what it was about?
  • Does it matter that some women posted the color of their underwear without knowing why they were doing it?
  • Does it matter that this is all centered on Facebook, the social network that censored a breast cancer patient’s attempt to raise awareness by posting her post-mastectomy photos?
  • Am I the only one who finds a nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone slightly distasteful, in the context of a life-and-death disease?
  • Did it work?

Ah, now there’s the big question.

ABC News reports that “organizations that support the cause say they are thrilled with the free publicity.”

“We think it’s terrific,” said Andrea Rader, a spokesman for Susan G. Komen For the Cure, an organization that raises funds for breast cancer research. “It’s a terrific example of how little things get started on the Internet and go a long way to raise cancer awareness.”

The Washington Post’s Story Lab reports that the Facebook fan base for  Susan G. Komen For the Cure “exploded” from 135 to 700 in a two-hour period this morning, but also records some less enthusiastic reactions, like this one:

“I think the thing about posting your bra color was so incredibly dumb,” said Tanya Alteras. “I have a friend who is in her late 20s, just had a double mastectomy, chemo, and is now going through radiation, and she was furious about this. How this raises awareness about breast cancer is beyond me. It’s all about making a silly inside joke, and trying to make it meaningful. When you have people posting ‘Saran wrap’ it just becomes offensive.”

Meanwhile, an “Official” I updated my Status with my Bra colour Facebook Page was set up Thursday morning, 9:30 UK time, by a woman named Kimberley Griffiths. She writes “I am not the person who created it but made it Global by this Facebook Page, So Keep Inviting and supporting.”

While the Page sheds no light on the origins of the meme, it has acquired 29,306 fans as of late this afternoon. The Page provides a link to the online donation page for a UK breast cancer research charity and hosts a growing collection of photographs, presumably contributed by Facebook fans whose dedication to the cause is not hampered by undue modesty.

Attention, Awareness, Facebook fans… Where do we go from here?

We can’t know how many women who posted their bra colors on Facebook will now be reminded to do regular self-examinations as a result.  We can’t know how many lives will be saved as a result of work made possible by the donations generated as a direct result of the publicity… once the adolescent giggling stops and word begins to filter down through the uncertain channels of social media that this nudge-nudge was more than just another Facebook poke.

“These online antics may be raising more attention for women’s anatomy than for breast cancer research,” points out the ABC News story,  going on to quote Karen Young, spokesperson for breastcancer.org.

“I’d like to learn more about this,” Young said. “The challenge is you are seeing certain cryptic messages and they are interesting, but I haven’t seen it lead anywhere. I am really intrigued and think there is a possibility to bring it to the next level.”

And there has to be a next level, doesn’t there?  If awareness doesn’t translate into action, it’s empty talk — gone as quickly as a status update in the feed on a Facebook home page.

Do take a few minutes to read In the name of awareness by Susan Niebur, by the way, if you have not already done so — you’ll find it posted in a few different places online.  It’s a pretty powerful reponse to the Facebook bra color meme by a woman who has a heck of a lot more right than most of us to have an opinion about it.

Meanwhile, over on Twitter, as the weekend begins, talk of the Facebook bra color meme is still gaining momentum. A teenaged boy complains that he didn’t want to learn the color of his teacher’s underwear; a young woman wants to know why she’s getting so many Facebook messages asking about her bra color; many of both genders are saying “enough, already!”; and one fellow just observed that “the backlash has started”… 

On the other hand, there are girls and women naming a color in memory of a loved one lost to breast cancer, or reporting that they’ve made donations to breast cancer research in lieu of disclosing their underwear preferences. Breast cancer is a hot topic tonight across the blogs and news outlets — and we’re nowhere near October, the designated Breast Cancer Awareness Month. That has to count for something, right?

I just don’t know, honestly; it’s a tough call.  Let me throw the big question out to you — 

Did it work?

 

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Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Friday, 08 January 2010 at 11:27 PM

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Comments

  • Twitter Trackbacks for Wild Apricot Blog : Facebook Bra Color Meme: So, Did It Work? [wildapricot.com] on Topsy.com

    Twitter Trackbacks for Wild Apricot Blog : Facebook Bra Color Meme: So, Did It Work? [wildapricot.com] on Topsy.com  said:

    Friday, 08 January 2010 at 10:36 PM
  • Nonsequiteuse

    Nonsequiteuse said:

    Monday, 11 January 2010 at 2:24 AM

    I am not the first to say so, but think it did not work because the call to action was missing.

    I'm trying to start a new meme - asking women to do 3 things to move breast cancer research forward.

    1) Visit www.armyofwomen.org and sign up

    2) Change their FB status to "I'm in the Army now."

    3) Link that FB status update to the Army of Women website.

    We shall see - it sure would be nice to help Army of Women reach their 1,000,000 women goal to create a pool of women who'd consider participating in breast cancer research.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Monday, 11 January 2010 at 5:06 AM

    Consistent message going on on FB statuses is likely to get noticed more quickly and obviously connect them as part of one meme; one central website as a source of information on the meme; and links included - yes, that addresses a number of the problems that came up with the bra color meme. I wonder, though, if the confusion (and, in some quarters, distaste) arising from the bra color meme might have a dampening effect. Hopefully not... but it will certainly be very interesting to see how this plays out, Nonsequiteuse - good luck!

  • Sophie

    Sophie said:

    Monday, 11 January 2010 at 5:42 AM

    I'll be honest, I just did it for the fun of watching men try to work out what was up with all the colour status updates. I knew it wouldn't spread any awareness of breast cancer whatsoever, despite what the message urging me to do it said; it was just fun! :)

  • Justine

    Justine said:

    Monday, 11 January 2010 at 9:53 AM

    Great piece here, Rebecca. When I first got the message asking me to change my status to the color of my bra to raise awareness about breast cancer, I did so without hesitation. I mean, why not right? But after a day with many people asking me what the status changes are all about...it begs the question, how exactly is this raising awareness about breast cancer? There is no call to action and awareness without action is worthless.

    You mentioned that the origins of the meme doesn't matter very much but I disagree. I think it matters very much. I think it's important that people know where this whole thing started. Maybe if we could explicitly link this campaign to a specific organization or person, it would lend it some credence. There could be more direction as to where exactly this campaign intends to lead us. Right now, it seems that there is no organization...just a game being played. It's too bad actually because I thought it was a clever and simple way to pique people's interest with a serious potential to turn into something more tangible.

    Anyway thanks for writing this. A lot of really valuable points and questions asked. I gave you a shout out in my blog post related to just this issue. If you're interested or have the time, check it out here.

  • AlexJB

    AlexJB said:

    Monday, 11 January 2010 at 10:23 AM

    Whether or not something 'worked' depends greatly on the intention behind it. If there was no intention, then there is no "worked".

    Putting that aside, there's no such thing as bad publicity if your goal is 'awareness'.  I've heard that it takes a domestic violence victim seven 'contacts' before they'll take action. Seven times of someone saying "are you being abused by your partner?" before they might say yes and seek help.  If that's true, then every single time a person is reminded of the possibility of breast cancer has some value.

    And if there's no cost involved, then where's the down-side? There will always be someone who's 'offended' by something like this. And it doesn't matter. I don't care if you're offended as long as you get checked for cancer and keep talking about it. If the goal is awareness, being offensive is irrelevant. Reach and stickiness is all that matters. Every conversation that this causes two people to have about breast cancer is a win - not for an individual organization, but for the sake of women who've never heard/seen the phrase before.

    That said, an organization trying to 'seed' this kind of viral campaign has more at stake because of their reputation with their existing supporters, their brand, etc etc etc. That's why it's often most effective to do these types of things anonymously (IBM tried this by spray painting logos on the sidewalks of san francisco years ago).

  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth said:

    Monday, 11 January 2010 at 2:28 PM

    Interesting...the version I received did have a call to action - it sent receivers to thebreastcancersite.com, which raises money from sponsors to provide free mammograms to women who need them.  

  • marty

    marty said:

    Wednesday, 13 January 2010 at 9:59 AM

    I am really interested in the way it rolled across Facebook. It looks like discussion of "bra" has been dropping on the walls of facebook users (http://www.facebook.com/lexicon/index.php?q=bra). but Bra and color is flat. (http://www.facebook.com/lexicon/index.php?q=bra%2C+color)

    As we sould expect there was a spike in October on wallpost on breast cancer but it too has been dropping. http://www.facebook.com/lexicon/index.php?q=bra+color#/lexicon/index.php?q=breast%20cancer

    I am just guessing but I think these "virus" move from social cluster to social cluster on Facebook. The mashable reporter looks like his story is on the long-tail end of the bra chatter on walls. And mostly the meme is just bad reporting from a slow day at mashable.  

    My guess is that the edgy part got the most attention in the early days  as part of the playful experimentation but then the "play skills" were converted to more serious connection but that the posting is not wide spread as one would think because with out the ananlyitics the average user gets stuck in a very small echo chamber.  

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Wednesday, 13 January 2010 at 3:33 PM

    Sophie, sounds like you've put your finger on the reason why the meme took off like it did!

    Justine, thanks so much for your contribution to this discussion. I enjoyed your blog post and commented on it: thanks for sharing it. When I read all the great questions you came up with there, the bottom line started to shift a bit for me. Now starting to think along the lines that the meme might be said to have "worked" - even if not quite as intended (or as we presume was intended) to begin with. Breast cancer awareness and/or action aside, it has nonprofits taking a good hard look at the nuts and bolts of how social media works, with a reminder that the audience is perfectly capable of splitting off the nice road you've mapped out and reinventing the campaign to meet their own priorities and interests!

    AlexJB - "Every conversation that this causes two people to have about breast cancer is a win - not for an individual organization, but for the sake of women who've never heard/seen the phrase before." An excellent point.

    I do remember the sidewalk spray-painting stunt - and the lesson picked up by marketers then was the virtue of anonymity, yes; but  it seems to me there was another, similar "graffiti" campaign within the past year - do you recall who it was? it's slipped my mind at the moment -  where most of the damage to reputation came not because the campaign backfired but because it had been disguised as a "grassroots initiative" and the public felt duped, tricked, made fools of when the truth was exposed.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Wednesday, 13 January 2010 at 3:44 PM

    Elizabeth, that's interesting indeed - I hadn't heard of the meme being linked to thebreastcancersite.com in the actual call to action. It would have been a good fit - hope the version that you received was very widely propagated!

    Marty, if you write up a blog post to explore those observations in more detail, I'd love to read it.

    Your remark about the meme moving from cluster to cluster is, I think, spot-on. My theory here is that the (still) largely closed-door nature of Facebook seems to make memes move more slowly, and in fits and starts, compared to the way they propagate on the open social web, in blogs and on Twitter for example.

    Many women were under the impression that the bra color meme was a one-day-only deal, too, and began to correct their friends who continued to update with colors beyond the first 48 hours or so... but then, who knows exactly when the first bra color status update went out? Definitely food for thought, here, from a planning perspective. Facebook has its own rhythms; and possibly its own calendar. ;)

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