When do awareness campaigns create change?

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Awareness campaigns are largely ineffectual on social media but can be integral to their causes when focused on concrete goals. Photo by Paulina Martin.

Awareness months, days and campaigns are interesting concepts.  The purpose is noble and they are created with good intentions.  Whether  just a day meant to raise awareness for a certain type of cancer or a campaign driven across college campuses nationwide, the goal of each remains the same.  But what is that goal?  And is that goal typically successful?

When awareness campaigns are driven across social media, they are generally pointless. I know that there are already arguments in your mind against this.  You might say that raising awareness is incredibly important for curing said disease or that creating a social media following behind an awareness campaign is critical to its success.

However that is not true. Likes and follows don’t equal success.  Shares and empathetic comments don’t cure diseases.  The problem with spreading awareness across social media is inseparable from the nature of social media itself.

People scroll through their Facebook and Twitter timelines dozens of times daily and retain very little of what they actually see.  Furthermore, they see liking an awareness campaign’s page as doing their part for the cause and thus feel even less inclined to donate or participate in meaningful ways.

“The Atlantic” provides an excellent example of the ineffectiveness of these types of campaigns.  A trend across social media in 2010 had women across the country posting a single color on their timelines.  At first, very few people were aware of what this signified and most simply ignored it.

The colors posted by the women were the colors of their bras, which they shared in order to raise awareness for breast cancer.  The end result was nothing more than a few extra likes for the Susan G. Komen Facebook page.

It was entirely ineffectual, as the awareness campaign was meant to be mysterious and confusing.  There was no fundraising involved and it was misinterpreted by the majority of those who saw it.  This was a fairly self-contradictory approach.

This trend in social media points out a severe fault in the concept of awareness months and similar campaigns:  They are not clearly defined.  What does raising awareness even really mean?  How does it help those who suffer from the disease?  And even if it results in hundreds of people becoming knowledgeable of a certain disease, knowledge is not a cure.

Moreover, rarely do these campaigns actually spark important conversations across social media.  They are becoming so common that they all begin to blend together for those who like and follow all these awareness accounts and pages.  For instance, this month of September is “World Alzheimer’s Month,” “Blood Cancer Awareness Month,” “Vascular Disease Awareness Month,” “Urology Awareness Month,” “CMT Awareness Month” and “Childhood Cancer Awareness Month,” among others.

The sad truth of the matter is that these campaigns need more than a loose and mostly disinterested social media following.  They need fundraising.  They need passionate bases of people.  This is why these campaigns have found perfect homes on college campuses.

The relatively small size of campuses allows students to do more than just follow campaigns.  It allows them to donate, volunteer and fundraise for the cause.  It gives them access to information in an engaging way, informing them in ways that will impact them so that they become knowledgeable enough to inform others across campus.  Furthermore, it encourages students to get involved with their friends, therefore increasing participation.

These aspects are particularly true for the University of Dallas.  As a result of the smaller campus, the unity of the student body and the type of students whom the college attracts, participation and involvement across campus in these awareness months becomes popular and communal.  The only detriment to these months is the typical financial state of college students, which prevents very successful fundraising.

Nonetheless, awareness campaigns can and should work.  They can be successful in fundraising, in informing people and in getting traction to work for particular results.  However, they need to be crafted with specific goals to accomplish, not just created for their own sakes.

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