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Sep 29, 2015

‘Karen’ the remorseful greenie (and other tales of futile awareness campaigns)

Advertisers can sell a product to young people with relative ease, but the matter of selling them, or anyone, a message of morality is rather more complex, especially coming from government.


Late last week, Crikey reported on the most elaborate misuse of ink this side of Justin Bieber’s forearms. With the release of Preventing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation in Australia, the federal government has added to a “youth awareness” publishing history rich in artless waste. The booklet aims to describe warning signs for extreme action and radical thought. It was intended for use by concerned teachers but was destined for ridicule by students who now have more written evidence that adults have no real business running the world.

To a cynical teen of reasonable intelligence, this pamphlet is a gift of comic inspiration — my god, if I were 15, I’d be using its “hip” awareness of “youth” to ignite a bong in art class. To a doubting teen of reasonable suggestibility, it’s a potential proof that the fragile “social cohesion” so clumsily promoted within it demands immediate disassembly.

Using the curious language of liberal tolerance, the document praises “diversity” even as it demonises it. While we are enjoined to honour social and cultural differences, we are also urged to consider them as the preamble to violence. In short, it’s okay to be different so long as you are not, you know, different.

The funniest and most widely reported propagandist passage details “Karen” the environmental activist. This youngster, now farcically honoured via a series of Facebook pages, is brought to unconvincing life by the kind of writer better suited to producing ecumenical copy for an ultra-Christian teen newsletter. After a youth misspent listening to “alternative” music — an adult descriptor whose use had already become hilarious to kids by the ’90s — and protesting the protection of old-growth forests, Karen grows out of her radicalism in favour of  “a sustainable solution using the legal system” and gets a gig in the “environmental field”.

Look. They haven’t thought this through. As a parable, “Karen”, who ends up doing pretty well for herself, is a failure. She converts the extreme passions of youth into adult profit and her story is less of a warning than it is a recommended career trajectory. The message is: sit in front of tractors listening to John Butler and stinking of sandalwood for a few years, and you’ll grow up to find socially meaningful work.

Unlike the fancifully drawn “Karen”, “Khazaal”, the al-Qaeda fanboy, is deprived of a redemption or a point-of-view. This “diverse” pamphlet makes some effort, however misguided, to depict the young, white environmentalist but gives us nothing more than a brown stick figure with a rap-sheet in the Islamist case. And it is this scope that ranges from getting-it-very-wrong to not-even-bothering-to-understand-it that has long informed awareness propaganda aimed at or about the problems of “youth”.

Emerging scholarship suggests that campaigns that seek to modify behaviour in all age-ranges often backfire. There is a real danger of normalising a particular social ill, say environmental destruction or family violence, by depicting it. The authors of a study on the effectiveness of gender-based violence (GBV) campaigns concluded that these “often propagate a descriptive norm that (such) behavior is prevalent in the community, perhaps licensing violent behavior rather than activating behavior to reduce GBV”. The idea that people behave badly simply because they have no information about behaving well may turn out to be deeply flawed.

Schemes aimed at young people can run not only the risk of making an undesirable behaviour seem normative but, as in the “Karen” case, fail so badly to demonstrate understanding of young people, they undermine their own authority. In particular, anti-drug ads aimed at youth tend to fail and many legitimate concerns were raised about this year’s recycled “Ice Destroys Lives” campaign. Studies on a 1998 US anti-drug campaign found that the young people at whom the ads were directed became much more likely to smoke pot.

This Reefer Madness tradition which makes authority ridiculous continues to the present with Karen and her ice-smoking buddies and is certainly something I recall from my own youth. The ‘90s era of Drug Offensive ads made drugs look fun and the powers that control their distribution ridiculous. One advertisement featured a girl whose rough night had delivered a stranger to her bed. She looks to her right in the morning to see a young man whose resemblance to an underwear model of the period did little to dissuade me from seeking casual, drug-fucked sex with chaps who looked like muses for Calvin Klein.

Advertisers can sell a product to young people with relative ease, but the matter of selling them, or anyone, a message of morality is rather more complex. And even risky. Campaigns aimed at reducing eating disorders by urging young people to “celebrate” appearances rather than, say, trying to ignore them altogether may not only compromise their own message but make research in the field more difficult to fund. Campaigns aimed at reducing depression among indigenous youth broadcast the idea that it is bad behaviour by racist individuals at fault. While this idea in itself is not harmful and it might be nice if a few white idiots put the brakes on their stump-dumb racism, such messages do underscore the cheap and convenient idea that all the bad in the world is a private fault and not, as is clearly the case in the metal health of indigenous people, also a public and institutional problem.

At its best, “awareness” aimed at youth is benign. At its most hilarious, it produces “Karen” and an afternoon of distraction on social media. At its worst, it gainsays it sown aims.


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22 thoughts on “‘Karen’ the remorseful greenie (and other tales of futile awareness campaigns)

  1. Helen Razer

    Thanks @Tinatoerat. I have clearly been listening to Reign In Blood by Slayer too often. Fortunately, “metal” is not considered a precursor to radicalism by the Australian government.

  2. klewso

    Wasn’t it meant as a boost for teenage morale….?
    “In a future world of uncertainty, just remember, no matter how dumb you think you are, you could qualify for a government job – as simple as ABF”?

  3. AnisaS

    Too right Helen. When I think back to my days in the suburbs of a regional city, I could easily have been shunted off to Gitmo for ‘listening’ to punk loudly played on 45s, wearing black nail polish which was pretty edgy in the day, and putting a safety pin through my working class ear. But look how we all turn out. Seriously though, I was surprised to see the authors’ names. I can only hope that, as they claim, the report was used well out of context. I am though struggling to think what context would not make it look ridiculous.

  4. anthony hall

    whilst I agree that this current campaign looks like it’s got the looney right’s hand prints all over it. Let’s not forget that the government was responsible for possibly the greatest ever public health campaign with its anti smoking push, and it’s still working !

  5. AR

    It is a truism that it is difficult, well nigh impossible, to ridicule the risible but you dun done good here, Mz Razer.
    Pity about that damned prolixity though.
    It would have been twice as good if the verbiage had been cut by 25%.
    Trouble is, which 25%?

  6. Duncan Gilbey

    Everything was OK until I started listening to that ‘coloured’ music…

  7. Saugoof

    I take issue with your statement that anti-drug ads are aimed at teenagers. The intent is less about preventing kids from taking drugs and more about convincing scared parents that there is an epidemic and our party is the only one who takes this seriously, so vote for us! Cynical, moi?

    My biggest problem with that brochure is what exactly they were trying to achieve with it? The way this is written, there are no guidelines about what to do to prevent kids from becoming whatever extremists, or even how to guide them back from there. So the only goal left that I can see for this brochure is to make sure we’re as paranoid as possible and see reds under the bed everywhere.

  8. Helen Razer

    AR. For the past year, you have reliably offered the same remarks on my writing style. That is, when you are not calling me a “fat chick” as though my girth, of which you have no clear idea, is somehow related to my powers of analysis.
    As I have not improved in that time, please, feel at liberty to re-write my work so we can all learn how it may be properly done.

  9. Helen Razer

    Hey, Anthony. While an argument can be made, and B Keane has made it very well here at Crikey, that price signals have been more effective than promotion, I agree that not *all* awareness campaigns are bunkum. I myself resigned from the durries more than fifteen years ago due, I believe, in part to the horror movie eyeball I came, thanks to Quit, to associate with smoking.
    I think the thing with Quit and the the particularly gory TAC ads in Victoria, which are said to have been effective, is that they have a clear basis in reality that most of us can grasp. Smoking does kill us, and so does bad driving. These are not moral injunctions but more “stop doing this or you’ll die painfully, you idiot”.
    These ads aren’t hyperbolic in the sense that they really do depict what most of us would understand to be real things.
    Drug Offensive ads of the ’80s and ’90s were some weird kind of abstraction which featured “rock” music that no discerning young person would tolerate and unusually attractive protagonists. And, importantly, extreme or unusual outcomes. I recall that there was a much praised campaign ’round the turn of the century which actually offered messages like “you will be really boring to talk to” or “you’ll smell of spew” or “you won’t play footy terribly well”. My sense is that such ads would be far more effective than the Reefer Madness schlock.
    It seems to me that the “awareness” approach is often, although not always, very poorly handled. I do not believe that such campaigns are, by necessity, doomed to fail or even contradict themselves. It’s just that they most often do.

  10. AR

    Mz Razer – I was puzzled after your last offering to be referred to as sexist and now you traduce me for using ‘fat chick’ so you clearly have me confused with some other commenter.
    Unless you simply don’t know what ‘prolix’ means.

  11. Helen Razer

    I have not confused you for another. You have made slights about my appearance and these have been moderated as per posting guidelines.
    Please. Feel free to correct my work by example rather than simply writing the same comment each week.

  12. Helen Razer

    No. It’s quite true.

  13. AR

    Saying don’t make it so – please provide an example.

  14. Helen Razer

    JUL 23, 2015 is the last time you called me a “fat chick”. It was removed.

  15. AR

    I repeat, untrue.
    IThe phrase is not in my vocabulary. Rather than this fruitless back & forth, prove it.

  16. Helen Razer

    I do not have a screen shot. I have what I believe is a clear memory of a comment appended to your user name saying that fat “girls”, “women” or “chicks”, like me, apparently, were likely to be fans of Bruce Springsteen.
    I remember being quite shocked that this criticism, otherwise common on the internet, unfolded on Crikey. I remember that you, who so routinely tell me that my writing is terrible and whose username is one I now easily recognise, were the author.
    If this not, as I believe it to be, the case, I apologise. Even it it was, as I believe that it to be, then we can at least be glad that you are also shocked about a moment of bad judgement.
    Whatever the case, I think we can agree that you don’t like my writing.

  17. AR

    I accept your apology.
    It’s not the lack of quality of your writing – see above in this thread for example – as sometimes you have some good points to make.
    It is the sheer otiose quantity but, if you are paid by the word, that is understandable in these straitened times
    Johnson said that one should strike. out ones best phrases in order to strive to do even better.

  18. Helen Razer

    Please. I urge you to find another target for a while.

  19. anthony hall

    Thanks Helen for you response, now if I could just loose the 15 kilos I put on since giving up the durries

  20. Helen Razer

    Ha, Anthony. I acquired a good solid 8kg of post-dart fat. I found that vanity was the best way to lose it again. But, this did take around 24 months.


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