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A Ballsy Oral History of the Life-Saving Deadpool Testicular Cancer PSA

In 2016, a cheeky ‘Deadpool’ ad taught millions of men how to check their ‘smooth criminals’ for testicular cancer. Years later, many men says it saved their lives

April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re grabbing it right by the balls. Every day for the entire month, we will be publishing a new story aimed at getting men to better consider — and cherish — their family jewels in hopes of helping prevent a diagnosis that, if caught early enough, shouldn’t prove fatal. Read everything here.

“Gentleman, how well do you know your happy sack?” 

So begins the one-minute video labeled as a message “brought to you by Deadpool.” In it, the sorta superhero sits at the edge of a billiard table, rotating two pool balls in his palm as a gentle fire burns in a fireplace behind him. “I’m sure you rummage around downstairs more than mommy would like, but it’s time you started paying attention to your favorite pastime, because that bag of beans bouncing around in your hand could be trying to kill you,” he continues. 

From there, Deadpool goes on to explain that testicular cancer is the most common form of cancer in men between the ages of 15 and 35. Then, he goes into detail about how men can check themselves for lumps. While he uses very Deadpool-like language — calling testicles “man berries” and “smooth criminals” — it’s accompanied by medically accurate diagrams, and his message is delivered sincerely. The video concludes with him telling the audience to check themselves monthly, and to “tweak the tomatoes before you go cucumber crazy.”

The spot was posted on Ryan Reynolds’ Facebook and Twitter accounts on January 28, 2016, just two weeks before the release of the first Deadpool film. It received massive attention from all corners of the internet, from Deadpool fans to Adweek to The Huffington Post, managing to stand out in a viral campaign that was already being regarded for its utter randomness (see Betty White’s early review of the film). 

Since then, the testicular cancer PSA has been viewed millions of times and, along with the rest of the Deadpool ad campaign, it won a Clio award in 2016. On top of that, a number of people credit the ad with saving their lives, explaining that without it, they’d never have known to check themselves for suspicious lumps. 

Here to tell the story of the PSA and the good it’s done are two of those survivors, the ad men who conceived the spot, the charities who helped promote it and the co-creator of Deadpool himself. 

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Graham Hawkey‑Smith​, CEO of the advertising agency Feref Limited: People forget this now, but there wasn’t much expectation for Deadpool before it came out. It was the first R-rated superhero movie, and a lot had been made of Ryan Reynolds’ previous track record with superhero films. But the marketing team at Fox brilliantly reached around the world to different ad agencies and said, “Inspire us.”

Feref was one of those agencies. We were approached by Julien Noble — then Head of Worldwide Digital Marketing at Fox — who asked us to come up with an initial set of ideas to raise awareness for a very different sort of film. So, we put together a bunch of ideas and one of them was “Touch Yourself Tonight.”

In the advertising business, the public only sees maybe five or 10 percent of the ideas that are proposed. You need a brave client who says, “Let’s do it. Let’s push it,” and is open to something different. That’s what we had with Fox, who really took to the PSA idea, as did Ryan Reynolds, who saw Deadpool as a very personal project. 

The initial idea for the PSA came from our executive creative director at the time, Chris Kinsella. He was drawn to the line in the trailer where Deadpool says, “I’m touching myself tonight.” Chris said, “I wonder where we can go with that?”

Chris Kinsella, former Executive Creative Director at Feref: I think we actually came up with the idea first, and then that line, “touch yourself tonight” was just the perfect way to promote it. 

Fox had been a client forever, and when they came to us with Deadpool, it was a real gift. Deadpool is self-aware, he can break the fourth wall, he’s ironic as fuck, he’s foul-mouthed, and yet, he’s also got a heart. Putting all that together, it allowed us to do a kind of ironically sincere thing with the character and use him for a good cause. 

Normally, when Hollywood does charity, it can be pretty cringe, but Deadpool can do a send-up on that and it works out great. Eventually, we decided on testicular health because, well, balls are funny and they’re kind of an underappreciated part of the male anatomy. I mean, dicks are great, but balls are much funnier. As for cancer awareness, that just made sense because, as a character, Deadpool has cancer

Fabian Nicieza, Deadpool Co-Creator: There’s a reason why I gave Deadpool cancer when I assumed full responsibility for writing him [in 1994]. I considered, “What would make a person risk becoming a monster?” The answer was: “It was the only way they had to save their own life.”

My mother-in-law had passed away from cancer a couple years earlier, and I thought of conversations we’d had and what she said she would have sacrificed just for a chance to survive. I applied that to Deadpool — the very thing that cured him is what cost him his humanity. It was the perfect way to build a backstory that allowed Deadpool to work in the way I thought most unique: a blending of Bugs Bunny and Frankenstein’s Monster.

Hawkey‑Smith​: The Deadpool PSA was scripted by John Ross, who works here at Feref. He captured Deadpool’s voice just brilliantly. All the funny lines in there, that’s all John Ross. For the medical bits though, we took that very seriously. We wanted to be absolutely sure about that. It could not be jokey, so the diagrams are all proper medical diagrams. 

For the filming itself, we just supplied the script, but I think Ryan Reynolds wanted to use his own people, so we weren’t around for that. We were sent the rushes for it though, and we produced the final edit.

Kinsella: They came up with the fireplace and the pool table and all that — that wasn’t in the script — and they did some really fun stuff with Deadpool twirling the pool balls. Otherwise, the PSA was really straightforward, which is good because sometimes things get dressed up too much. Plus, PSAs have a “to camera” thing about them already, so it really suited Deadpool’s character. I thought it turned out great.

Rosie Krneta, former Director and Board Trustee of Ballboys: About six months before the PSA aired, Ballboys [a now-closed U.K. testicular awareness charity] was contacted by Fox to create a large-scale health awareness campaign. They wanted a U.S. arm and a U.K. arm, and Ballboys was the U.K. arm. Fox put a lot of effort into tracking the data and seeing just how many people had engaged with it and how many people had used the services because of the PSA.

The traffic and engagement with viewers was very impressive. Our traffic at Ballboys increased massively, and we had lots of people reach out to us. Even now, after Ballboys closed in 2021, people know about Ballboys because of Deadpool.

Kinsella: We did a bunch of different stuff for the Deadpool campaign, but nothing went as viral as “Touch Yourself Tonight.” I think they told us it got 100 million impressions or something like that.

Hawkey‑Smith​: We were told it reached 100 million people within just two weeks. We also ended up with something that was beyond conventional marketing. It really had an impact.

In November 2018, there was a medical conference in New York and we were asked to present the Deadpool spot to doctors. They were intrigued by how we’d managed to engage a young male audience in a way that they couldn’t. They loved that we identified this audience of young men and got them talking about testicular cancer. Not only did we get them talking, but we got them laughing and celebrating and, ultimately, checking.

Rishiel Gudka, Physiotherapy Exercise Specialist: I’ve been a Deadpool fan since I was a kid. He’s my favorite superhero, and during the buildup to that first movie, I was on social media tracking the whole viral campaign. Along with everything else, I saw the “Touch Yourself Tonight” PSA, and it got me thinking. I’d never checked before, and I didn’t remember being taught that in school. So I followed what the video said and checked myself after a warm shower. That’s when I found a prominent lump on my left testicle.

I was 26, which is right in the age range for getting it, so I went to my GP and they had a look. They said it was “nothing to be alarmed about,” thinking that it might just be a varicose vein on the testicle. I also thought it could have been a twisted testicle, so I didn’t worry too much. But they wanted an ultrasound to be sure, so I did the ultrasound. A couple of weeks later, I was told to go see a consultant. So I went to another hospital, and that’s when a doctor sat me down and told me that he suspected I had testicular cancer

I found the lump in February, 2016 and had my surgery in May to remove my testicle. It was early — just stage one — so I didn’t need any chemotherapy afterwards. That was six years ago, and I’ve been clear since. I really do think that movie saved my life. Without it, I don’t know when I would have found that lump, or if I would have at all.

Kim Jones, Founder & CEO of the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation: This promotion with Deadpool and Ryan Reynolds was really amazing. While it’s a very serious topic, it makes sense to use humor because that’s how the message gets across to men. 

I formed the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation in 2009 as a way to educate people. My son was diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer at age 13 in 2007. He made a full recovery, but in 2015, he relapsed and it was worse. He passed away on June 8th, 2016 at age 22. That was just a few months after Deadpool came out. He was a fan of Deadpool, and he was excited that we got involved with them as the U.S. partner.

In addition to the PSA, Fox put three million of our self-exam inserts in their DVDs and Blu-rays. The insert used some of the same language from the campaign — like “man berries” and “bag of beans” and things like that. Later on, we received several emails of guys saying they were diagnosed early because of those inserts.

Kevin M. Connolly, Voice Actor: I’m a huge fan of [Deadpool co-creator] Rob Liefeld. I own a bunch of original artwork and I’m always on the Facebook fan page. When the Blu-ray of the first Deadpool film came out, someone on a fan page made a post mentioning that the insert on the Blu-ray had a guide for checking for testicular cancer. 

I remembered during the brilliant ad campaign that they did two PSAs for cancer — one for breast cancer and another for testicular cancer — but I didn’t really think about it then. But when someone made a post about the insert, it caught my attention. I was 44 at the time and I’d never checked, but in the next day or so, I decided to. Sure enough, I found a huge lump. There was no pain, no discomfort — I would never have known.

Three or four days later, I went to my doctor and we did a sonogram. Then there was an MRI, then surgery. During surgery I had three lumps removed along with my testicle, followed by two rounds of chemo. Since then, I bought a big box of the rubber wristbands from the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation, and I give them out at the convention signings I do for my voicework. I tell people, “I survived testicular cancer, so can you.”

That’s my story about how Deadpool saved me from testicular cancer. And that’s why, since then, I encourage those with testicles to, once a month, reach down under and inspect those smooth criminals — just like Deadpool says.