NEW YORK (Reuters) - If a flu pandemic is coming, but you have to get out and about, there is now a creative way to express fear.
That seems to be the approach at DIGO, the New York ad agency behind a line of humorous designer masks that will allow people to stand out from the crowd as they attempt to fend off the swine flu virus.
"When we saw swine flu panic taking hold, we felt that re-envisioning the face mask, this icon of fear, into a canvas for more creative, playful sentiments was a way to say we have nothing to fear but fear itself," said Mark DiMassimo, DIGO's CEO and chief creative officer.
"Life goes on, enjoy yourself, express yourself. If you want to be careful, don't make that all that life is about," said DiMassimo, who envisions an initial run of 25,000 masks for $100 each along with a certificate authenticating them as part of the first printing.
A variation on the masks that may become ubiquitous on the streets of U.S. cities before the flu epidemic runs its course, the DIGO version comes in six whimsical styles, including DiMassimo's personal favorite, one that makes it appear the wearer is smoking a cigar through the mask.
Other masks have bright red lips, a pink pig snout with red circle and slash signifying no pigs, a black handlebar mustache, the words "It's not me, it's you" and its opposite, "It's not you, it's me."
"We're basically saying that something functional can also be a form of self-expression," said DiMassimo, who insists the masks, while humorous, will be medical grade.
The masks will be sold on DIGO's website before shifting to a special website. Ultimately, they might be available in stores at a lower price, DiMassimo said.
Medical experts advise people to wash their hands frequently, cover their coughs and sneezes and stay home if sick to avoid spreading the illness. They generally agree that face masks, especially the surgical masks now seen on the streets of Mexico, offer very little protection.
No matter for DIGO.
"Our belief is that brands are built and ideas are spread today person to person, much like the flu," DiMassimo joked.
In a nod to Mexico -- epicenter so far of a disease that could spread around the globe to become a pandemic -- DIGO plans to start selling the masks on the Mexican festival Cinco de Mayo (May 5).
Not everyone may go hog wild for the pig jokes on the masks. The World Health Organization said on Thursday it was no longer calling the illness -- which the agency says cannot be caught from eating pork and has not been found in pigs -- swine fever.
Reporting by Bill Berkrot; Editing by Xavier Briand and Frances Kerry