Stop Already Raising Awareness

American Heart Month, AMD/ Low Vision Awareness Month, National Children’s Dental Health Month, International Prenatal Infection Prevention Month, African Heritage and Health Week, Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week, Condom Week, Eating Disorders Awareness and Screening Week, National “Wear Red” Day for women’s heart health, World Cancer Day, and Give Kids a Smile Day, to name a few, are just a few of the awareness campaigns.

Uncertain of how to use your full awareness? It’s not just you. Or perhaps you’re still catching up on all the calls to action from January’s days of attention. With Co-dependency Awareness Month, Glaucoma Awareness Month, National Mentoring Month, Poverty in America Awareness Month, Radon Action Month, Self-Help Group Awareness Month, Stalking Awareness Month, Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, Volunteer Blood Donor Month, Weight Loss Awareness Month, all occurring concurrently, your to-do list is likely already complete.

Ensuring that as many people as possible are aware of the issue is frequently the initial instinct of individuals working on a subject they are passionate about. It’s only natural to want other people to care as much as we do when we are passionate about a problem or a cause. We argue that if individuals knew that not wearing a seat belt increases their risk of dying in an accident, they would be more likely to do so. And if people only realized how important condom use is to stop the spread of disease, they would always wear one.

The Information Deficit Model, a concept from communication theory, describes this inclination. The phrase was first used to describe a generally held view on scientific communication that much of the public’s skepticism about science and emerging technologies was merely the result of ignorance. And that the general public would be more inclined to accept scientific knowledge if they only understood more about it.

This viewpoint is still prevalent among scientists and in the nonprofit, marketing, and public relations industries. Public relations books commonly mention awareness, attitude, and action objectives. Understanding comes before action; marketing students are taught. The number of persons exposed to the message is still how many top public relations and advertising firms present results to customers.

A campaign to raise awareness of a problem can be effective if that is the only objective. But does simply having more excellent knowledge about anything ever suffice? For instance, if the aim is to educate new parents on the value of immunizing their children, you wouldn’t be content if they were only informed. You would want to confirm that they were also vaccinating their kids at the appropriate ages for the relevant diseases.

Or maybe you want people to understand how important it is to be hurricane prepared. Knowing how important it is to be ready for a storm and having several cases of water set aside and an escape route your entire family is familiar with and understands are two very different things. Perhaps your awareness goals are related to a topic that is more abstract or for which there are less obvious solutions, such as how implicit bias affects workplace diversity or the increasing danger posed by global warming. However, specific actions can be taken in each scenario to neutralize the two threats.

It’s time for activists and groups working to bring about change in the public interest to go beyond simply raising awareness because a wealth of data indicates that people who are merely given more knowledge are unlikely to change their ideas or conduct. It is a massive waste of time and resources for worthwhile initiatives that cannot afford to make any compromises. Instead, social change advocates need to use behavioral science to design campaigns with content and clear calls to action that influence people’s feelings, thoughts, or behaviors, leading to long-lasting change.

How Advocacy Campaigns Fall Short

Of course, raising public awareness of a problem can be a crucial first step in fostering a change-friendly climate. If the Occupy movement hadn’t garnered widespread attention in 2011 during the US presidential election, would there have been as much discussion about income disparity this year? If there hadn’t been a persistent campaign to raise awareness of racialized police violence, would we have understood the significance of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter? Or would there even be a discussion about transgender rights without the stories from series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black?

When it’s a part of a more significant attempt to promote social change, creating awareness about something that wasn’t known before can be a valuable strategy. However, we must consider the science demonstrating a more organized, targeted, and strategic approach to promote social change. In reality, research indicates that initiatives that only aim to raise awareness not only fall short and squander resources but occasionally even wind up doing more harm than good.

Understanding the inefficient and perhaps detrimental effects of raising awareness is essential before examining the best approaches. An awareness campaign has four distinct hazards when done incorrectly: it might result in no action, reach the wrong audience, cause harm, and provoke a backlash. We’ll look at each of these threats individually.