What's The Deal With Movember, Anyway?

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It’s mustache season again, and not everybody is happy about it.

For the uninitiated, let us clarify: We’re talking about Movember — a mashup of “mustache” and “November” — a monthlong charity event during which men grow facial hair to encourage each other to take care of their health. I first realized Movember might have a bit of an image problem when a man told me he was considering growing out his beard this winter but would be holding off until December 1, lest his aesthetic choice be confused with mustache activism. Another friend told me she is annoyed that she can’t figure out what the charity event is for. “Is it supposed to increase awareness for a cause?” she asked. “Because all I'm aware of is your gross mustache.” It’s probably safe to assume she’s not interested in being a “mo-sista,” the name for women who upload fake-mustachioed profile pics in solidarity.

This celebration of facial hair and men’s health, an effort led by the Movember Foundation, has been an annual event since 2003, when it was started in Australia. The point, according to its website, is to raise money and awareness “to combat prostate and testicular cancer and mental-health challenges.” It’s an admirable goal. After all, men are 24 percent less likely than women to go to the doctor when they’re having a health issue. And, Movember has become a marketing hit. The site boasts promotional videos featuring big-name stars like Seth Rogen and Hulk Hogan explaining the Movember concept, and its “How to Grow a Mustache” video featuring Nick Offerman (a.k.a. Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation) was viewed more than a million times in 2012. Each year, the effort boasts more participants and dollars raised than the last. According to its tax filings, the Movember Foundation gave away more than $10 million last year to the Prostate Cancer Foundation and the Lance Armstrong Foundation to support cancer research.
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The direct benefits of “raising awareness,” however, are a little harder to track. The Movember Foundation proudly states that it has spurred “2.7 billion conversations about Movember and men’s health,” but, as it turns out, only about 20 percent of “Mo Bros” who grow a mustache also end up seeing their doctors for a checkup. As with any style-savvy marketing campaign, it’s clearly appealing to some ardent health advocates...and also to some people who like the aesthetic trappings but haven’t really taken the message to heart.

Most popular charities have faced at least some backlash. In recent years, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the foundation that pushes much of the pink-ribbon corporate marketing in which a percentage of the proceeds from a purchase fund breast-cancer research, has been forced to answer pointed questions about what amount of its earnings directly fund efforts to find a cure. It’s also prompted campaigns like “Think Before You Pink,” which encourages consumers to examine what portion of profits are really funding research and advocacy. It’s not hard to imagine a Movember counterpart: Ask before you ‘stache, perhaps?
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But, so far, the brewing backlash to mustache activism seems mostly aesthetic. As facial hair has become ubiquitous — in part, perhaps, because of Movember — new-growth stubble comes across as less of a pointed political statement than a hairy hop onto the bandwagon. “Movember is the perfect excuse for men to trial facial hair, especially those who worry about not being able to grow a full beard or mustache," one barber told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. "Suddenly everyone has an excuse to say, 'Well I wouldn't do it normally, but it's for a good cause.’”

Whether or not the backlash is rooted in justified skepticism about Movember’s impact or a simple distaste for its aesthetics, it would be great to see the foundation require its participants to pledge not just to talk about men’s health and raise money for the cause, but to see the doctor for a general checkup themselves. And, as for those who find themselves annoyed with the newly sprouted mustaches all around them, maybe rather than roll their eyes, they’d do better to ask themselves, “What have you done for men’s health lately?”