The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently ran a story about charities that are using provocative, even profane, language in order to grab the attention of teenagers and twenty-somethings. The Chronicle story takes an approving tone in its assessment of these charities’ use of language to target an audience that is distracted by multiple social media. Three of the foundations featured in the article have missions to educate teenagers and twenty-somethings about cancer: the Canadian charity F--- Cancer, I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation, and the Keep a Breast Foundation. F--- Cancer uses the f-word throughout its website, including on its “shout out” wall where people can post expressions of anger about their cancer experiences; I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation reaches young cancer patients through its weekly webcast The Stupid Cancer Show and other web-based and in-person educational programs; and the Keep a Breast Foundation aims to raise awareness of breast cancer through its “I Love Boobies” bracelets and t-shirts. While all three use provocative language to grab the attention of young people, among them they range from the profane f-word to the colloquial “boobies.” Some shock advertising is more shocking than others. Are these uses of provocative language all equally acceptable? To consider the appropriateness of such language by foundations and how we should think about where to draw the line in the use of such language, I spoke with civility expert Pier M. Forni, author of the newly published book The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction and director of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project. I asked Dr. Forni about whether the good works of these foundations is worth the erosion of civility that accompanies the use of provocative and profane language. Dr. Forni began by raising the question of effectiveness:

I think that we have to wonder, is this kind of advertising effective? That, of course, is the crucial question. The answer is, I'm not sure, but we should look into it. I wonder if something more imaginative would work as well. . . . Resorting to this language is certainly an indication we are baffled at finding new ways to promote the message.

Matt Zachary, founder and CEO of I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation argues that his foundation’s use of language is effective for its audience:

We still say “Give Cancer The Bird” and host our annual patient conference at a casino in Las Vegas.... We can understand how certain people may take issue with our tone but it is not our goal to please everyone. Our target market is the angry young adults of Gen-Y who’ve had their life uprooted by cancer. They need permission to be pissed and an outlet to express those feelings in a positive way. The key is to know your audience. We use language that connects us with our constituency and we’re very effective at both reaching them and impacting their lives for the better.

Mr. Zachary’s claim about the effectiveness of his foundation is borne out by the tens of thousands of cancer patients reached by its information-filled Stupid Cancer Show webcasts and other programs. In the case of his foundation, provocative language catches the attention of young cancer patients but then draws them into a serious conversation. However, there are other foundations that have targeted Generation Y with a health message without resorting to profane language. The Truth, for example, reaches out to young people with an imaginative anti-smoking message that uses games and clever videos such What’s in a Butt? to reach its audience. (However, even The Truth sometimes hints at profane language, as in the title to its game Kiss My Glass. Perhaps it’s just impossible to target Generation Y without some of this language?) Dr. Forni suggested to me that there may be a line beyond which no foundation should cross:

There is a difference between saying cancer is stupid and uttering a profanity. . . . Whoever puts out a message for public consumption that reaches thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people has an implicit responsibility to use the powerful tool of communication that they have at their disposal.

Foundations like I’m Too Young For This Cancer! Foundation combine effective programming with language that provokes but doesn’t go beyond the limits of acceptability. On the other hand, foundations like F--- Cancer have gone too far—even if they were to offer a range of programs as effective as those offered by I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation. The erosion of civility just isn’t worthy of the public’s charitable dollars. NOTE: This piece was updated on November 22, 2011, at noon EDT.