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Billboard Company Censors Breast Cancer Ads

by Michelle Holcenberg

Ironically, the posters did go up in more conservative parts of the Bay Area
Ignore it and maybe it will go away. In large part that seems to be the attitude of our society toward the reality of breast cancer. Sure, there are 5K races to support research, and pink ribbons to be pinned on supporter's lapels, but when it comes to the cold, hard reality of mastectomies, radiation, chemotherapy and often death, there are few places the American public comes face-to-face with the killer. That is, unless they know one of the one in nine women who will develop the disease in her lifetime. And though that's not unlikely, even then many remain unaware of the ravages of the disease.

A billboard campaign targeted at changing that has been the subject of controversy in the last few weeks. The three posters, designed to look like a Cosmopolitan magazine cover, a Victoria's Secret catalogue and a Calvin Klein perfume ad, feature topless models striking the usual come-hither pose -- but with a twist. In place of voluptuous breasts the models sport scars. Mastectomy scars.

The posters were scheduled to go up in 57 bus shelters in San Francisco and in surrounding Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Napa counties. But in that liberal, anything-goes City By the Bay someone suddenly grew a prudish conscience and decided citizens' eyes needed to be shielded from the realities of breast cancer. Outdoor Systems, the company that contracts with San Francisco for exclusive rights to advertise on city bus shelters, backed out of donating space for the ads after seeing the final product.

Ironically, the posters did go up in more conservative parts of the Bay Area, though fewer than 20 currently remain on display. (Most were taken down due to citizen's complaints, though the total number of upset citizens who were able to topple the posters in Santa Clara County was said to be four.)

Lew Lillian, head of Outdoor Systems, made the decision to keep the ads out of San Franciscans' sight.

"To see a woman's terribly, terribly scarred body -- it's just not for public consumption on the streets of San Francisco...where children and others can be traumatized," Lillian told the San Francisco Examiner. "It's too shocking, too upsetting, too provocative."

Shocking? Outrageous? Andrea Martin hopes so. She underwent mastectomies in 1989 and 1991 and it's her chest that's on display in the ads -- superimposed on models' bodies. Martin, 53, is director of The Breast Cancer Fund (, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization dedicated to putting an end to the breast cancer epidemic through education and funding for research. The ads are part of the organization's "Obsessed with Breasts" campaign intended to raise public awareness about the disease.

The posters (all work on which was done pro bono) were designed to change the way people think about breast cancer and to challenge society's obsession with the female breast as an object. But the ads have met with resistance even within the breast cancer community. The American Cancer Society ( has come out against them, according to Martin, citing concern that the images might upset and frighten women away from getting mammograms or seeing a doctor. However, while Martin has her own reservations about what she calls "one size fits all" prescriptions for mammograms, the screening exam was not the focus of the campaign.

"We need to think about exposure to toxins, exercise and diet and the things we know can help prevent the disease while we're waiting for scientific answers," Martin says. "There are so many things women need to do to educate themselves about this disease besides mammograms and self exams." Martin does note that until there are other adequate screening methods women should use those currently available after taking into account their personal and family medical histories.

Educating people about the disease and getting them involved with raising funds for research into environmental causes of the disease are two of the main goals of the campaign. The Breast Cancer Fund's site offers a call to action for people to get involved. Their new book, "Pathways to Prevention: Eight Practical Steps -- From the Personal to the Political -- Toward Reducing the Risk of Breast Cancer" offers more ways to get engaged.

Regardless of the fact that their ads were pulled, the posters have succeeded in bringing attention to the subject. Since they were introduced in late January, traffic on the Fund's Web site has increased. During the first week of February they had 8,000 pageviews, far exceeding normal numbers (and more people visited the Obsessed with Breasts pages than the homepage). They've heard from men and women around the world. Media calls have poured in from across the globe, from the BBC to Elle magazine.

"I think freedom of expression has been abridged," says Martin of the censorship the ads received. "The people making the decisions are substituting personal sensibilities for the entire community. The community has every right to see the ads."

Community response to the campaign has been overwhelmingly supportive and Martin is optimistic that the positive public opinion will help turn the campaign around.

"Our sincere hope is that the bus shelter organizations will reconsider their decision based on the obvious strength of public opinion in favor of the campaign. In addition, we hope that the increased awareness about the campaign will bring forward other possible sponsors for the ad in places that include women's magazines and other consumer publications."

And it seems that new life may be breathed into the campaign. According to a February 8 article in the San Francisco Examiner, another billboard company, Eller Media, announced it will display the ads free of charge on a number of billboards in the city. However, all their boards are currently rented through September, so when that may happen remains unclear.

Outdoor Systems' Lillian says he will not bow to pressure just because another company plans to display the ads. He says that since the space to display the posters was donated he feels no need to do so. But he may have no choice. The Breast Cancer Fund has been in discussion with the American Civil Liberties Union to determine if in fact First Amendment rights have been violated.

In a letter to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, Alan Schlosser, managing attorney for the local office of the ACLU, wrote: "If the City is going to allow bus shelters to be opened up to speech activity, it cannot allow the spaces to become an arena for censorship." It remains to be seen whether or not legal action will be taken.

On February 7, Supervisor Mark Leno introduced a resolution commending Martin and The Breast Cancer Fund for their work. While it does not condemn Outdoor Systems, if the resolution is passed it will put the city on record supporting the Obsessed with Breasts campaign.

So there's new hope that more people will see the photos and hopefully learn more about the disease, protecting themselves and what needs to be done to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women in the future.

"These ads have got the power of truth," Martin says. "They may cause you to look away or be stopped in your tracks, but when you start thinking about them you have to admit to the truth of this. What is wrong with a society that can objectify women and their bodies and not look at the truth of breast cancer?"

To learn more about breast cancer and the Obsessed with Breasts campaign and to order publications and donate to the cause, visit or call 1-800-487-0492.

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Albion Monitor February 13, 2000 (

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