Do awareness campaigns work?

A tweet passed through my feed recently that caught my attention:

I had been thinking about this a lot because April was Child Abuse Awareness month. Every year I end up beating myself up. “Why is this so hard?” I wonder.

There is research on this subject. The piece that gets the most attention is this Spring 2017 Stanford piece titled “Stop Raising Awareness Already”.

Because abundant research shows that people who are simply given more information are unlikely to change their beliefs or behavior, it’s time for activists and organizations seeking to drive change in the public interest to move beyond just raising awareness. It wastes a lot of time and money for important causes that can’t afford to sacrifice either. Instead, social change activists need to use behavioral science to craft campaigns that use messaging and concrete calls to action that get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result, create long-lasting change.

The whole piece is well worth a read.

The problem is we have all these awareness campaigns that have worked or do good work. Despite there being over 200 awareness days and months in the US, we all remember a few. The “this is your brain on drugs” PSA and ice bucket challenge come to mind.

I’d argue the “this is your brain on drugs” PSA worked because it was so shocking and people didn’t really know as much about some drugs and had a massive budget. The ice bucket challenge worked because it not only raised awareness of a lesser-known disease, but gave people something to do.

This gets back to my earlier thesis about empowering people to do something online. Sometimes that might just be learning about something. But if my click-rate stats are any indication, most people don’t want or need to learn about something they think they already know enough about.

Most awareness campaigns fail because of one or more of these three things:

  1. You’re raising awareness about something people already know a lot about, or aren’t surprised by.
  2. You provide people only one action: giving you money (this works best if it’s an emergency).
  3. You strike the wrong tone and at the wrong time.

Child abuse awareness falls into the trap of being nearly universally known. You or I may not know how big the problem is, but humans are bad at estimating scale. It makes almost no difference to say 6 kids were abused last week or 600 — it’s universally bad. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a survey you found child abusers agreed child abuse was bad. Unlike some obscure health disease that impacts 1 or 2% of the planet, I’m already “aware enough”. There’s nothing to change my mind about, either.

Breast cancer awareness has moved into this category, too. I’m not going to learn about or be expected to learn about the intricicacies of the cancer itself. Nor am I personally going to do anything to solve it. So that leaves donations, runs, and campaigns to check your breasts.

There may be parts that are worth exploring deeper with campaigns. I’d argue this is where most campaigns are today.. Like raising awareness that 92% of abused kids know their abuser. Or if caught early, many cancers can be beaten.

Campaigns that give people something specific to do, like examining yourself for breast or testicular cancer, do well. More organizations, particularly those with small budgets, would do well to focus more attention on depth.

And campaigns that don’t try to capitalize on already evident attention in a crisis, like the Royal Post Office painting boxes blue for NHS, work better. I’m not even British and I know about the NHS and their current capacity problem.

Like boats that do doughnuts or planes that fly overhead for really no reason other than symbolism. For some group of people that’s probably very exciting. But it has no connection to the crisis at hand, and during the crisis, the money and time could be spent better elsewhere.

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Justin Harter

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