Your awareness campaign isn’t working

by Avery Boulware, Campus Carrier News Editor

We love raising awareness. Campaigns are everywhere, for causes ranging from breast cancer to orphan care. The #EndItMovement, started by the Passion Conference to raise awareness about sex trafficking, made it cool to sharpie a red X on your hand that definitely won’t wash off for a few days. And if you didn’t participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, you were probably living under a rock for the entirety of 2014.

Why do we love raising awareness? In short, we love being the bearers of bad news. We love to feel educated about important topics, especially if we are the first of our friends to do so. It also makes us look empathetic, or like we care about something more than fashion or followers. It’s the same reason we love posting pictures after a service trip of us in a long skirt and a headband, holding a poor Ugandan orphan whose name we don’t remember. It’s the easiest way to look educated and empathetic.

The bad news is that raising awareness, on its own, does next to nothing to help a cause. The assumption is that people make bad choices solely due to lack of information. This is only partly true—of course, the decades-long campaign getting the word out that smoking causes cancer helped to cut down on cigarette costs. 

Jesse Singal of New York Magazine covered this very subject back in 2014. 

“It’s something of a consensus among people who study behavioral interventions ranging from health to bullying to crime,” Singal wrote. “There are a lot of reasons why people do what they do, but a lack of awareness of their actions’ potential repercussions ranks pretty far down the list.”

Getting information to the masses won’t necessarily solve the problem at hand. Nutrition labels are a prime example of this: even though we have access to every ingredient and fat content and calorie count of what we eat, America still has a severe weight problem.

Sometimes raising awareness can do more harm than good. In 1998 the government launched the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign in hopes of reducing adolescent drug use, but inadvertently made smoking weed more desirable, according to a 2004 study.

Laurie Ball Cooper, author of an International Rescue Committee Literature review, wrote about the potential harm of raising awareness about crime or human rights.

“If your focus is on how common the behavior is,” Cooper wrote. “You may actually reduce the likelihood of a bystander stepping in to stop it, or you may reaffirm the perpetrator’s belief that they can do whatever the undesirable behavior is without repercussion.”

Often, the initial campaign to raise awareness is generally helpful. The problem arises after the campaign’s first surge of popularity. It’s the law of diminishing returns. In other words, I bet you haven’t thought about ALS since the Ice Bucket Challenge took over Instagram. In fact, even if you had, you might have thought that the problem is being solved because of all that buzz a few years ago. This is often the case for popular awareness campaigns that fizzle out.

This may all seem a bit depressing. What can we do for causes we believe in? Well, that’s just it—stop drinking the Kool-Aid with every awareness campaign you see on your news feed. 

Figure out what is close to your heart, whether it’s orphan care or sex trafficking or drug prevention. Do your research and find out how you can actually make a difference, whether you post it on Instagram or not. 

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