Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Story of the Australian Sun Part 2

Protection From the Sun
The reality of summer in Australia is that if you go outside, then you really should be putting on a hat, sunglasses, a reasonable shirt and sunscreen (SPF 30+). Even though we do this, L-kun's hat (above) is not really kosher, as it should be a wide brimmed hat rather than the baseball cap style. Every time we go out for any time there's a family ritual of slopping on the sunscreen... 

Yet when I was L-kun's age (and a lot older) it was pretty well expected that you'd end up looking like a lobster (i.e. RED) from sunburn a few times over a summer. The whole skin peeling off your body was just a normal way of life. How the times have changed... and perhaps it's because the message has been drummed into us from a very long time ago thanks to years of anti skin-cancer advertising.

Skin Cancer... The Message and the Dark Side of Advertising Industry
The dominant message however that has occurred over the last 20-30 years is that the sun is bad, and we should get out of it at all costs (regardless of where you are). Indeed over that period of time, there has been a growing number of ad campaigns in Australia that started with the Slip Slop Slap ads in the 80s (slip on a shirt, slop on some sun-screen and slap on a hat). From those almost embarrassing early years, the advertising industry has become increasingly sophisticated, or at least aggressive in pursuing the skin cancer warning message.

I've just thrown together some of the classic television ad campaigns from Australia over this period...

WARNING - some of these adds contain graphic visuals, and might be disturbing to some people. It should be remembered however that all of these ads are/have been played on prime-time Australian television and including childrens hours.

The 1980's... The Beginning
This was the period where public health messages meant budget, and it also was the time when adds were aimed more squarely at families. This is reminiscent of the Life Be In It adds of the 70's. The message was simple - if you're spending much time out in the sun, cover up.

The 1990's... Sexy is Back
The advertising industry had finally come on board, and they knew that if you wanted to sell the message of skin cancer prevention, you couldn't go past the old classic. Sex sells. Who would have thought that skin care could be so hip. I guess they figured that the people they wanted to concentrate on were the 20-40's who were out having lots of fun in the sun, but who didn't want to be lectured (or sung) to.

The Late 90's... Shock is Good
By the late 90's the audience was becoming more sophisticated... and the medium of television was learning the power of the visual. And the power of shock. As with the anti-smoking ads of the same era, advertisers knew that things needed to be stepped up to grab our now ambivalent television viewer habits. The quick grab of something quite graphic was becoming the new in thing.

2004... There's Nothing Sexy About Scars - Or Is There?
We now have a different turn of events - the inclusion of computer graphics/animation to spice up things. There was a hint of the shock advertising, but for the most part it played on the smart "killer body art" line. Perhaps at the end of the day however, it seemed to detract from the seriousness of the disease and consequences... just a little scarring on what was otherwise a very healthy looking body.

2007 - If a Little Shock is Good, Then...
This advert featured a real story about Tanya, a 22 year old who was having a melanoma (aggressive form of skin cancer) surgically removed. The ad actually showed the surgery - and unlike the previous ad campaign there was an all too unattractive side of this ad. The message was this - this isn't about fashion and minor scars, it's about hospitals, surgery and ultimately life and death. Warning - this IS very graphic, but once again, shown during family viewing times. It's a powerful message, but I always wondered if these ads are counter-productive... making people retreat from the issue in fear and disgust.

2008... The Youthful Face of Death
Following on from the use of real people to bring home the reality of skin cancer, there were few campaigns that had the immediate chilling effect of the one that featured the young, beautiful Claire Oliver. This was now an all out assault on the fashion of being tanned (and especially solariums)... and it was no longer in terms of hospitals and surgery. It was about showing that youth was not only vulnerable, but that youth culture (and the cult of the beautiful) was fundamentally the greatest risk to getting skin cancer. It was an incredibly sad story... and one that reminded me of the old Yul Brynner ads of the 80's. Advertising has a few key strategies - but the memorial is one that can only be taken out of the cupboard every so often.

Current - The Threat Within
The current ad - actually this is the one that made me write this post - has now reached new depths in the use of fear. Now, no longer is the message about spending too long out in the sun, but rather spending any time out in the sun. The message, intentional or not, is that the cancer could be in you now... spreading... eating yourself from within. All because you took your shirt off for a moment. The dark side of tanning is as much a message on the dark side of advertising. Where the message of caring for your skin has now become one of fearing your skin (and your body). Or worse, fearing that it is already too late. Today's advertising moguls seem to have decided that when you cut through the sex, the sophistication, the shock and the sympathy - all you have to sell a message is fear itself.

The Reality... Is It Worth It?
Now in writing this, I don't want to currently about 2,000 people die in Australia every year from skin cancer related disease (or about 1.24% of all deaths per year, which is about 153,000). So it's not an insignificant cause of death (and for each death, there are many more people that have been seriously affected by skin cancer). And as I've written before, it's common for people to have skin cancers removed nowadays. My father has had many sun-spots removed... and he's pretty typical of people of his age that spent a long time working outside. The removal is normally done by a family doctor with a liquid nitrogen spray to effectively cold-burn your skin around the suspicious spot ...and no, it's not overly pleasant, but it's a helluva lot better than having large bits cut out.

So I acknowledge that whilst the advertising might be over-the-top, the risks are real, and so perhaps it needs to be done. And after all, the rates of death might be much higher. Yet - do we really know how effective these ad campaigns are, and what are the other costs to our lives?

My Own Experience
Last year, I had a scare where I'd gone to my doctor as I was worried about a mark on my face... which had been slowly growing over about 6-7 years. When I finally made a point of asking her to check it out she was worried enough to send me to the dermatologist that specialised in skin cancers. My advice - don't wait to see a doctor when you think something's wrong. Just do it. Anyhow - the specialists initial reaction was not good (in fact he indicated that he had initially been very worried about it). However, it had turned out to be nothing to worry about (yet he still froze it off - which kind of relieved me anyhow). He did however find another spot that I didn't even know about that definitely had to be frozen off because it could potentially turn very nasty. Sometimes it's not the things that are most obvious that are the most dangerous. So... skin cancer is something I do worry about, and it's something I don't take lightly.

Still, I wonder if we have not in our rush to get people to protect themselves, have we become so concerned at the advertising campaign and increasing the already massive budgets of our anti-skin cancer organisations? The message should not be one of fear, but of watchfulness and common-sense. Not to be afraid of the sun at all costs, but to respect it.

The story of the Australian Sun is, much like the sun itself, a harsh one. Yet it can't be separated from the other story of Australia. The joy of getting out and living with the world. Whilst we take care to look after our son, I definitely don't want him to grow up always being afraid to go outside - or too scared to play in the sun with his friends. Life needs still to be enjoyed.

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