This event seems to have started in Australia, with the “Movember” initiative, for which men grow moustaches, or cultivate all sorts of weird, hairy facial amenities, to raise awareness for prostate and testicular cancer organizations and charities.
Of course, all of this male openness about the need for self-monitoring, screenings and early detection is important, and a great step forward. But if you’re really keeping your eyes on the awareness prize, the media has taken the concept into the territory that I call PAUT, MD: painfully awkward urinary/testicular media discourse.
First up: NBC personalities Willie Geist and Carson Daly will undergo testicular exams for a live broadcast segment on the “Today” show. Set your calendars. The ratings stunt, um, I mean medical check-up, is scheduled for Nov. 20, during most viewers’ breakfast hour. It raises the bar, so to speak, from last year, when "Today" hosts Matt Lauer and Al Roker received on-air prostate exams. (And we thought seeing inside Katie Couric’s cute pink bowel in an on-air colonoscopy was racy!)
And though it wasn’t a planned media event to coincide with Men’s Health Awareness month, another group dedicated to urinary enlightenment has nevertheless found itself in the spotlight. The International Paruresis Association (a group representing those who suffer from "shy-bladder syndrome”) is taking on a DirecTV ad starring Rob Lowe. IPA CEO Steve Soifer told the AP: "The ad is in poor taste and ridicules a serious problem."
Let’s back up a minute. You probably are aware of the campaign, even if you hate it. Currently, there are four commercials running, all showing two Rob Lowes: one, a sophisticate who speaks to us from movie sets and his lavish homes, who has “upgraded” to DirecTV, and the other his there-but-for-the-grace-of-god doppelganger. Heavily uglified by makeup, prosthesis and comically bad wardrobes, he changes from spot to spot, but is always icky and doomed, because he is a “cable subscriber.”
The lower-than-low Lowe is pretty repellent and off-putting at first. You just want to avert your eyes. But giving us two Lowes is actually a splashy and memorable way to promote the Dish, making the whole thing a meta joke about pathetic, behind-the-times cable watchers. Although the spots do make some claims (No. 1 in customer service?) the set-up deftly deflects from reality, by introducing an alternate universe where DirecTV is indeed king.
(How fictional is it? Full disclosure: I was forced to subscribe to DirecTV two years ago when I lived in a building with a dish on the roof in San Francisco. It seemed to offer something like 1,800 channels, with 1,784 of them at any one time devoted to demonstrating “the miracle bra.”)
But people are talking about the DirecTV ads, even to diss them. That’s because the former Tiger Beat Hall of Famer really carries them. Lowe gets to make fun of his pretty-boy past and show his grown-up comedy chops. And the writing and production values (from Grey NY) are first rate. (The spots even end with a subtle musical flourish from “St. Elmo’s Fire,” for those in the Brat-Pack know.)
“Crazy-Haired Rob Lowe,” with his “arm hair curtains,” is the weakest spot, too obvious to offend even the hirsute. Visually, it’s essentially a replay of the caveman joke that Geico did years ago.
For my money, “Super-Creepy Rob Lowe” is the funniest. He’s an aging derelict, shown sitting on a folding chair at a public pool, using his binoculars. Nuff said, but there’s also comedy in the great details.
“Painfully Awkward Rob Lowe” is more forced -- like watching Ed Grimley, with his high-waisted pants and frenetic energy, wearing Eddie Munster’s wig and hairline. The Cadillac-black hairpiece, with what could be horns or waves, is truly terrifying. And the fanny pack isn’t helping. In one part, he’s at home, waiting for the cable guy. (“I hope it isn’t a girl,” he says. “Or a guy.”) In the last scene, shot in what looks like a public basement restroom filled with men at urinals, the painfully awkward one turns to the camera and says, "Fact: I can't go with other people in the room."
What I didn’t know is that the shy-bladder syndrome is experienced by 7% of the American population, "usually but not exclusively at rest stops.” The IPA’s Soifer maintains that while “we don’t mind if people have a little fun with it,” the way Lowe’s character is depicted in the spot mocks a serious problem. “What if he didn’t have a leg or an arm?” Soifer says. “Are you going to make fun of them?” He wants the ad pulled, while DirecTV counters that the spot is clearly fantasy and will continue to run.
I think the ad should be killed. Then we end up with a win-win: Shy-bladder people get their moment in the Movember health awareness sun, all for free. And DirecTV also gets free coverage, while appearing to be a responsive, sensitive corporation. It would be a clear victory for the shy, demonstrating the beauty of examining the nuances of painfully awkward medical issues off-camera. NBC’s “Today Show” should try this, too.