WHEN The Sun kicked off its Page 3 v Breast Cancer campaign last Tuesday, there were more than a few mixed feelings.

"Page 3 beauty" Rosie Jones was on both the infamous page itself and on the front page, squeezing her perfect, buxom breasts as the paper announced the start of a "life-saving campaign to urge Scots to know their boobs". On the face of it, the campaign looks like a good thing. Who would complain about any newspaper trying to raise awareness of breast cancer? But, arriving as it does at a time when a movement is building among young women to get Page 3 dropped, it has been accused of cynicism. It looks more than a little like an attempt to boost credibility among female readers.

"Our iconic Page 3 has linked up with breast cancer awareness charity Coppafeel! to kick off Check 'em Tuesday," announced the paper, which has pledged that from now on, Tuesday's Page 3 will be dedicated to "reminding readers to be 'boob aware'." In the days following the launch, the cause of breast cancer awareness gained a huge spike in exposure. The three million women who read The Sun, and the four million men who might be viewing Page 3 and want to pass the message on to their partners, as well as the millions more people who heard about the Sun's controversial new campaign, have received a fresh reminder of the importance of finding time to "check 'em".

All this might seem positive. Early detection, we are always being told, saves lives.

But not everyone was enthusiastic. Newspaper columnists and anonymous bloggers alike expressed distaste. As Lucy Ann Holmes, founder of the No More Page 3 movement, put it: "Can you not do a great campaign about breast cancer without having to show soft porn?" And, while CoppaFeel! experienced a surge of social media interest and a flurry of people signing up to its check 'em reminder text alerts, No More Page 3 also saw a sudden spike in support.

In talking about this subject, many of us who feel uncomfortable with the Page 3/breast cancer association seem to get ourselves tied in knots. It's easy to come across as a prude who is prepared to let people die in the name of keeping boobs out of the media. Of course, no-one wants anyone else to die of breast cancer. And it would be a truly heartless person who blocked possibly life-saving information simply because we did not like the way it was delivered. That is why this campaign is hard to object to: after all, at its heart is a young woman, Kris Hallenga, founder of CoppaFeel!, who has incurable cancer and who spotted her breast cancer too late because she was not informed. She now wants to help stop that happening to other young people.

Yet still there are many voices, including some from within some breast cancer charities, who seem uncomfortable with this campaign. Even those who are committed to getting the self-examination message out there have expressed mixed feelings.

Audrey Birt, a breast cancer survivor and founder of Breakthrough Breast Cancer in Scotland, said she felt that the campaign was treading a precarious line: "How much is raising awareness, how much is further sexualising?" What critics are objecting to, after all, is not The Sun running a breast awareness campaign, but the fact it is running Page 3 images as part of that campaign. "I do understand that The Sun will have readers in the target demographic, but whether they would be ones that would be wanting to look at Page 3, I have my doubts. That's where I start to feel uncomfortable about it," says Birt.

Many of those who object to Check 'em Tuesdays are people who were uncomfortable with Page 3. Birt says of the institution: "My worry is it diminishes women, and does so in a society where we now have high rates of domestic violence and all of these issues. I don't think we ever can know the costs. It's a delicate balance. There is clearly a question about the impact Page 3 has on the way women are seen in society."

But The Sun isn't alone in taking an approach that mixes sexualised images and language with health advice. Check 'em Tuesdays are at the extreme end of a trend towards playful and ironic sexism in breast cancer campaigning. Six years ago in the United States, there was controversy when a school banned a breast cancer awareness T-shirt - the design had a baseball on each breast with the slogan "Save 2nd Base".

Even something like the fund-raising Moonwalk, whose events frequently result in news coverage featuring women flaunting carnival-styled bras, is part of this phenomenon. That this exists shouldn't be surprising. Breast cancer campaigning is bound to reflect the culture in which it exists and if we are obsessed with objectifying and looking at boobs, then the charities involved are going to exploit it.

The American social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America And The World after being diagnosed with cancer, wrote: "Once upon a time, grassroots women challenged the establishment by figuratively burning their bras. Now, in some masochistic perversion of feminism, they are raising their voices to yell, 'Squeeze our tits!'" CoppaFeel! is a slogan that echoes this.

But there may be a case for saying this is the way to communicate with young women today. Hallenga created her campaign because when she was diagnosed, at 23, this was the kind of language that spoke to her.

"I was young and all of my mates were at the same stage. We knew how we spoke and how we communicated," she says now.

"We're not saying that breast cancer isn't a horrible thing … But we can't make things scary for people. Young people don't want to know that I lost a breast and that next week I'm going to be half-naked on a metal plate getting radiotherapy to my pelvis. No, they want to know that they're going to survive if they find it early."

Hallenga's point partly is that there were breast cancer awareness campaigns around when she was younger, but that they had no impact on her. "Obviously I ignored them and I did nothing. Because they weren't in my world, they weren't at my uni, they weren't at my school, they weren't in my magazines." So Hallenga got creative about putting that message there, right in the face of young women, putting labels inside bras with reminders to check regularly, designing a sticker to put in the shower … and getting her campaign on to Page 3.

At 23, Ceris Aston is within the targeted age group. But she is also the organiser of the Scottish branch of No More Page 3, a campaign dominated by young women which is spearheading the battle against The Sun's daily bare-breasted feature. She says the whole Sun/breast cancer awareness campaign "just makes me feel awkward".

She adds: "For CoppaFeel! it's a great thing to get their message out on this platform. If it does make people think about checking their breasts, then that is a good thing. But still it makes me feel very uncomfortable."

For Aston it seems particularly strange that The Sun is raising awareness of something that primarily affects women "through a male-targeted platform that's intended for titillation". She says: "Do they expect men to kind of say to their partners and girlfriends, 'I was looking at the young model on Page 3 today dear, and I think you should check your breasts'?"

Mostly critics of Page 3 are supportive of Hallenga and her charity - Birt, for instance, says: "I am sure the charity is very well intended. They're risk-takers and that's a good thing. And they're trying new approaches." The biggest complaint, reiterated by almost every person I talked to, is that The Sun should have handled this campaign differently.

It could have done it without seemingly trivialising the disease, without being insensitive to those who have scars and mastectomies - simply by not making Page 3 part of it. It could have just run features on the issue, or put a "real woman" - a breast cancer survivor - on Page 3.

As Audrey Birt points out, there have been plenty of potent and highly effective campaigns which have taken a more serious approach. One which she was herself involved in featured Elaine C Smith holding pictures of breasts of all different shapes and sizes across her chest. Birt says: "These were ordinary women's breasts. It wasn't sexualised. It was an informative thing - my 86-year old mother saw it and said, 'Oh that's very good isn't it?'" It also worked, she says, with women going to their doctors earlier.

Of course, the "real woman" approach is also controversial. Many people feel uncomfortable with seeing images of scars and the savage impact of cancer on a woman's body, as was demonstrated when breast cancer survivor Beth Whaanga posted pictures on Facebook of herself naked, showing the scars she had from surgeries that included a mastectomy and hysterectomy - she was immediately de-friended by 100 people overnight.

Nevertheless, it is hard to think of a campaign that might have such reach as The Sun's. Laura Plane, who works as a "Boobette" campaigner with CoppaFeel!, going round schools, health fairs and pregnancy groups to communicate breast awareness to the young, was diagnosed with breast cancer at 29. She did not find it early. For her, the campaign is justified since its audience is so large: "The Sun newspaper is the largest-read paper in the country. It's just another platform to reach people we have not already reached."

And CoppaFeel! is a very genuine campaign. Hallenga simply wants to save other women from having to face her own very tragic experience. Even No More Page 3's Lucy Anne Holmes has respect for Hallenga. "I think she has a single issue that she really wants to get out and she's doing a good job of it. She's using everything within our culture to get that out. And our culture contains Page 3. Our culture also contains sexist language and harassment, like, 'Oh I'd like to cop a feel of them' and 'get your tits out'. She's harnessed that for the campaign."

However, while Hallenga is "harnessing" sexist culture for her campaign, Holmes notes that she and her team are trying to change that culture. "You can only respect Kris Hallenga for doing what she's doing," she says, "but also you have to respect us for trying to change it. The culture of harassment and sexism isn't great."

The problem for Holmes and many others is not CoppaFeel! but The Sun, specifically Page 3. It looks, after all, very much like the paper has tried to "pink-wash" the page, to make it look woman-friendly by associating it with breast cancer ("pink-washing" is the process whereby firms link themselves with breast cancer charities to make themselves look better).

As Barbara Ehrenreich has described: "When a corporation wants to signal that it's 'woman-friendly', what does it do? It stamps a pink ribbon on its widget and proclaims that some miniscule portion of the profits will go to breast cancer research."

This is not quite what The Sun is doing, but very nearly. It looks very much like this is a paper that has responded to the wave of criticism it has faced from young women, by wrapping Page 3 up in one big woman-friendly pink ribbon.

The problem is that it doesn't quite wash when few actually believe that this woman-friendliness is real.