Print Edition: June 19, 2013
Awareness campaigns are annoying.
There, I said it. Let the shitstorm fall upon me. I’m ready for the world to dislike my opinion and I’m prepared to point out why it’s not such an awful opinion to have. I understand that there are valid reasons behind having awareness campaigns, but I truly believe that none of those reasons are realized when most campaign promotions and events are carried out.
The purpose of an awareness campaign is two-fold; first, to make the public aware of a relatively unknown problem, and second, that people will get up and do something about it.
These campaigns aren’t effective, though. They’re usually kicking a dead horse as opposed to shining light on obscure issues of public importance. Bracelets, magnets, t-shirts, and a variety of other regular items in pink don’t bring awareness to breast cancer because everyone already knows about it. If we were living in the 1960s when no one had heard of breast cancer we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The campaign would have a legitimate purpose. As it stands today, I don’t understand how purchasing a product emblazoned with a pink ribbon is supporting people with breast cancer, or breast cancer research. How much of that measly $8.99 you spent on a “breast cancer” hammer is going to actually help? Without getting into the nitty-gritty of statistics, it’s not very much. All purchasing these products does is let you feel good about yourself for doing something instead of nothing.
Another huge problem with these kinds of campaigns is that they dole out feel-good vibes to people for doing next to nothing, and that alleviates a vast number of us of the obligation to do anything else.
This mindset is problematic because it promotes the bystander effect: the more people who witness a problem, the less likely it is that anyone will step in to intervene. Now this isn’t always the case, but I bet you can think of a time in your life when people stopped to look at a perilous situation and no one moved to get involved. If everyone buys the breast cancer baking set and thinks, “someone else will donate money directly to the cause. I’ve done enough,” then nobody is effectively helping. You become a bystander, but you also get to pat yourself on the back for just being present. For me that creates a whole slew of behavioural problems that I can’t even begin to touch on.
Nowadays any Joe Schmo (sorry Joes, your name rhymes nicely) can start up an awareness campaign or an internet meme for “awareness.” One time in my life I spent the better part of three days arguing on a social media website about why most awareness memes are useless, and in the end I just wanted to tear my hair out. Try as I might, they missed my point entirely. For a while we saw pictures of our favourite cartoon characters from childhood plastered all over the place in an attempt to bring awareness to child abuse. At first I assumed we were just being nostalgic and jumped at the opportunity to change my picture to a Pokemon. Apparently I was inadvertently raising awareness for children affected by abuse, or the fact that child abuse happens, or stopping child abuse. I’m not entirely sure.
There’s a term I use when discussing this: armchair activists. I adapted it from the term “armchair anthropologists,” which refers to those who don’t go do their own research but read about it and discuss it at length as if they do. Awareness campaigns create an army of people who will pompously argue at length why their bumper sticker is helping your aunt battle a horrific disease when all it does is put money into the pocket of a company who couldn’t care less.