Prostate Cancer Canada is encouraging men to get tested for the potentially deadly disease with a bold campaign that references historical and fictional characters in the form of latex gloves — yes, those donned by doctors for the often dreaded digital rectal exam meant to detect the presence of tumours in the male sex gland.

Called "Famous Fingers," the campaign features 13 gloves — index fingers raised — that are hand-painted with iconic designs for such luminaries as Babe Ruth, Napoleon, Winston Churchill and King Tut.

Each glove is accompanied by the figure's signature accomplishment. Take, for instance, Sherlock Holmes: "His finger cracked every case. Next up, your prostate?"

"Men may not like inherently to be talking about their prostate, but we do know they like talking about movies and music and sports," said Yaz Maziar, senior director of marketing and communications for Prostate Cancer Canada (PCC).

"So when you have figures in the campaign like Babe Ruth or Beethoven or Abe Lincoln or Thor or Frankenstein, these are things that men will find humour in," he said. "And with all the flutter out there to break through that noise, this is helping guys have some fun conversations online around an important health topic."

All levity aside, Famous Fingers isn't so much about prodding men to get a digital exam, but to discuss prostate cancer with their doctor and to have a test that measures the level of prostate specific antigen, or PSA, in their blood, said Dr. Stuart Edmonds, PCC's vice-president of research, health promotion and survivorship.

An elevated level of PSA can be indicative of cancer in the walnut-sized gland and early detection can make a critical difference in the odds of survival, said Edmonds, noting that prostate cancer causes virtually no symptoms in its early stages.

"And oftentimes when men start to exhibit symptoms of prostate cancer, it's already late-stage and so the options for treatment are reduced, and actually you're looking at a very aggressive form of treatment that may lead to men passing away," he said.

"So the idea is to detect prostate cancer early to be able to intervene, if necessary, early with radiation therapy or ... surgery. And if you can catch it when it's still localized, the chances for survival are close to 100 per cent. If you don't catch it early and its metastasized, (five-year) survival goes down to around 26, 27 per cent."

In 2017, an estimated 21,300 Canadian men were diagnosed with prostate cancer and 4,100 died from the disease, says the Canadian Cancer Society. Prostate cancer is the third deadliest malignancy among men after lung and colorectal cancer.

Despite controversy over PSA testing — in some cases, false positives or misinterpretation of results can lead to unnecessary or excessive treatment — Edmonds said Prostate Cancer Canada supports its use and suggests men should start discussing the issue with their doctors when they reach their 40s.

One way to deal with the risk of overtreatment is to put men on "active surveillance," in which close monitoring with regular PSA testing and possibly biopsies will determine if their tumour has grown and warrants more aggressive treatment.

"What we've seen over the last 20 years is a 40 per cent reduction in the mortality rate in Canada from prostate cancer," said Edmonds, who attributes much of that decline to PSA testing, which was introduced about 25 years ago.

Yet many men are reluctant to raise the subject of testing for prostate cancer with their doctors, in part because it means talking about their urinary and sexual anatomy, he said. Treatment for prostate cancer can lead to urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction.

"There's a sense of being fallible, showing weakness, and we're talking about something that can actually be emasculating."

The Famous Fingers campaign "is a way of catching people's attention," Edmonds said.

"We know that there are issues around men going to get tested or ask questions of their physician about prostate cancer and this is a way we can really raise awareness and say it's not a bad thing to have that discussion and it's not a bad thing to get tested either."

However, a professor of marketing at Queen's University's School of Business suggests the campaign could fail to have its intended impact because of its pointed focus on rectal exams, even though it's done in a light-hearted way.

"It's humorous, but frankly what the advertisement will say to the average man is: 'Why don't you go and get a finger put in your rectum and find out whether or not you have cancer,'" Ken Wong said from Kingston, Ont. "It's really not a message that endears one to the idea of having an examination.

"If their strategy was to increase the pool of people who are willing to be checked for prostate cancer, that's the wrong message to do it with," he said, adding that the use of humour could obscure more critical issues, such as the potential impact of the disease and treatment on the ability to have sex.

"Ask yourself which sells best — sex or humour? Most people would say sex."