The World's Weirdest Health Mascots

Health providers go to odd lengths to get their messages out. But do they work?


July 8, 2008— -- The setting: a doctor's office. The gown-clad patient, in cartoon Technicolor, appears nervous. His worries are confirmed when the doctor snaps on a latex glove unceremoniously. The patient gulps.

Cut to a cavernous red interior, where we meet Prosty. Prosty is half SpongeBob Squarepants, half Rodney Dangerfield. He stands next to the gloved hand, lamenting that its extended index finger has missed a spot of cancer on his side.

Oh, yes. It's exactly what you think it is.

Prosty the Spokesgland is a walking, talking prostate gland. Portrayed as the disgruntled everyprostate, Prosty is neglected and diseased. At the end of the clip, Prosty addresses the gloved hand directly: "Once more, and we are dating!"

It's just further evidence that although Prosty is a cartoon, he is not your average Saturday morning offering.

"Prosty the Spokesgland is not warm and fuzzy," says Dr. Faina Shtern, president, CEO and founder of AdMeTech foundation, the company behind Prosty's creation. "He's frustrated, he's angry. He does not get the attention that he wants to get."

If you're shocked by it, that's probably the point. Prosty is one of a new breed of mascots designed to draw attention to sensitive -- and sometimes embarrassing -- health issues.

And Prosty isn't the only one. While he acts as the glandular poster child for the "man-o-gram" -- a tongue-in-cheek moniker for a high-tech prostate imaging scan -- another bizarre mascot by the name of Petey the Pee Cup is making his rounds in Minnesota, campaigning for routine health checkups.

Unlike Prosty, Petey is no cartoon; he is a giant, foam rubber incarnation of a urinalysis jar. You can see Petey on YouTube, weaving his way through parades and racing the mascot for the Minnesota Vikings. Or catch him alongside Pokey, his huge, anthropomorphic syringe buddy.

Another far-larger-than-life mascot, who goes by the evocative name Mr. Testicles, roams the streets of London, encouraging Brits to make an appointment to get screened for testicular cancer. While the name may leave little to the imagination, the costume leaves even less: Mr. Testicles is a giant, walking scrotum, wearing nothing more than an exaggerated grin.

Such antics certainly get people talking -- but do they really help raise awareness? Those behind the creations say that while their ideas have met with their fair share of resistance, they do have a measurable health impact.

On most days, Chris Iles is senior communications specialist in the corporate communications department for HealthPartners, a Minnesota-based, not-for-profit health management organization.

But on others, Iles dons the Petey the Pee Cup costume.

"I actually did it as a favor for our community relations person," Iles says of becoming the man in the yellow jar. "I have not heard the end of it to this day. It must be three months since I've put the thing on, and I'm still taking heat for it."

And while he says the job of being Petey "gets rotated around," Iles is the occupant of the costume in at least one YouTube video, provocatively titled "Go With the Flow -- Petey Around Town."

"It's not exactly what I went to college for," Iles says. "I try not to take myself too seriously."

Larissa Rodriguez, director of care delivery and marketing for HealthPartners, says the approach may be humorous, but it has had a serious impact. She says that during the HMO's pre-Petey era, only about 14 percent of members took advantage of the organization's online health offerings.

"It was a shame, since we thought that there would be so much value in pushing the patient onto the Web," Rodriguez says.

But since the giant urinalysis jar hit the scene, she estimates that the traffic to the health Web site "has basically doubled."

Prosty is a crusader of a different variety. Rhino Films' Stephen Nemeth, Prosty's creator and a 2008 Academy Award nominee (for a separate effort), says the mission behind the character is to push for an as yet unavailable imaging test for prostate cancer -- in essence, a mammogram for men.

Shtern and Nemeth say that the existing screening method -- the infamous gloved finger -- misses many early cases of prostate cancer.

"Mascots, if used properly, can really be solid weapons in the constant battle to raise funds and awareness," Nemeth says. "At the end of the day, it's the only way you will get people to listen to anything; you have to 'Trojan Horse' the message.

"The more entertaining it is, the more likely you are to get people to engage with it."

Engagement, it seems, is a major hurdle when it comes to prostate cancer screening -- a sensitive subject, particularly for those who have experienced it firsthand.

"It became clear right away that we needed effective spokespeople for prostate cancer awareness," Shtern says. "We approached the stars, but nobody was really willing to talk about it, with the exception of Barry Bostwick."

Nemeth agrees. "The power of celebrity is the most important thing we have. But very few people in the prostate world would get up and say that they have it."

But not everyone is amused. Initially, even some within HealthPartners were skeptical, Rodriguez says.

"Honestly, we had a few people who said, 'Wait a minute -- you're using a pee cup to promote the organization?'" she says.

And while some accepted Petey the Pee Cup, others didn't think health screening in general -- and a urinalysis jar in particular -- should be a laughing matter.

Iles says that "90 percent of people react pretty positively. Most everybody, when they realize what it is, just starts laughing. Then you have the rare 10 percent who just take life too seriously and don't quite see the humor in it."

Shtern shares a similar experience with AdMeTech's talking prostate star.

"I would say that 95 to 98 percent of people felt it was a great idea," she says. "About 3 to 5 percent of people were deeply offended. But the bottom line is that everyone is talking about it."

And whether everybody likes it, Nemeth says the public could use a much larger dose of humor with their health messages.

"Look at commercials 25 years ago compared to today," he says. "It's like 95 percent comedic today. And we are selling a product; it's awareness."

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