Accurate representation of the content of most awareness raising campaigns. (Image: Unsplash/rawpixel)

OFFICIAL DEFINITION

The processes of communicating information to increase understanding of risk and to modify behaviour leading to widespread risk reduction.

RAZER DEFINITION

There’s a time and a very good place for awareness raising activities, say smack-dab in the middle of bushfire season or before mass death by pandemic flu. If misapplied or applied so often that an audience can no longer distinguish real risk from mere inconvenience, the techniques of awareness raising may find no time or place to change any behaviour at all.

“Awareness is a glass ceiling and no substitute for action and investment,” said the scholar and mental health activist Professor Patrick McGorry back in 2016. In several of his public presentations, the highly regarded shrink has intimated that passion without action is inaction. We can “lift the stigma” through “raising awareness” of poor mental health in Beyondblue style, or we can face the truth that depressive illness needs public approval like it needs a night at home alone with the songs of Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen, raising awareness of sad music. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

WHY IT MATTERS

Psychologists are no more affordable when Mrs Kafoops of Birchgrove comes to understand your pain. Brutal behaviour is not changed by the telly saying it’s wrong — in fact, it may be increased. When we come, as we generally have, to believe that “starting the conversation” is the beginning of the end to every kind of ill, we cannot be rescued from the risk of our mass delusion. Not even by an awareness campaign.

So many have come to accept that raising awareness is an end in itself. Even if no one in government believes that the practice does a damn thing, they’re sure prepared to pay the private and “community” sectors a load of dosh to do it. Whether an agent is cynical, sincere or a little of both in the use of a thing whose effectiveness is, at best, unfalsifiable, it has become a mandatory technique, a professional specialty and a very cheap means to convince a good many that Something is Being Done.

WHO CARES?

Many NGOs — and the states and firms that fund them — care, even if unconsciously, to continue conversation started by the awareness raising lark. It’s a low-cost, no-risk approach to the management of risk. In very few cases of awareness days, campaigns, UN years or ribbons can the return on investment be measured.

What has been observed by a bloke like McGorry and measured by research is the harm that the process can cause. Awareness raising can create more than the obfuscating sense that our betters are busy reforming an under-funded, over-extended network of mental health providers. It can elevate the very risk it claims to diminish.

The month that is swathed in pink has been found to dissuade women from seeking breast cancer checks. The awareness campaign that seeks to reduce gender-based violence can license such behaviour to the point that it increases. A colossal campaign to end obesity such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” can produce fat kids and research shmesearch, really. Try telling me or my mum that more than a glass of bubbles is binge drinking or an act of self-harm and we’ll pop another cork.

RELEVANT FACTS

  • The United Nations has given the year 2022 to the awareness of artisanal fisheries.
  • The Wikipedia entry on awareness raising couldn’t be more wrong.
  • The view that “respect” for women will reduce the risk of women being beaten has no basis in research or logic.
  • Peter Hall observed the government “policy paradigm” to be highly resistant to evidence of ineffectiveness. This explains, in part, state fondness for awareness raising.
  • Helen Razer has observed that private organisations, particularly those commissioned to create all this state-funded awareness malarkey, are highly resistant to everything but profit.

THE LAST WORD

“A little learning,” wrote Alexander Pope, “is a dang’rous thing”. This is similar to the elitist criticism a reporter lady finds daily in her inbox, and so can largely get knotted. But it is quite true that there can be unintended consequences of limited knowledge. And limited knowledge — or, in the case of Michelle Obama’s campaign, which overlooked the role that high-calorie foods play in obesity, flawed knowledge — is what awareness raising largely provides.

As described by Burch and Gordon in the 1970s, Dunning and Kruger in 1999, Nassim Taleb in 2007, Daniel Kahneman in 2011, and others, those with limited knowledge on a subject have a funny way of being both the worst people to decide what course of action should be undertaken and are the most confident in their prescriptions.

We’re all remedial experts now in this age of easy hacks and not only are we certain that #MeToo has, somehow, solved the problem of workplace harassment without producing the passage of one industrial law, but we just know that awareness raising is effective.

Awareness raising has effectively convinced the general population of the West that the Something that Needs to Be Done about, say, our rapid descent into poverty or our rapid ascent into a global warming inferno will be done when we “start the conversation”.

FURTHER READING

Christiano, A & Neimand, A (2017). Stop Raising Awareness Already. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring, https://ssir.org/articles/entry/stop_raising_awareness_already

Beck, J (2015). What Good is “Raising Awareness”? The Atlantic, 21 April, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/04/what-good-is-raising-awareness/391002/

Manchester University (2014). Celebrity Promotion of Charities “is largely ineffective” says Research.” ScienceDaily, 8 August, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140808110840.htm

Sanchez, C & Dunning, D (2018). Overconfidence Among Beginners: Is a Little Learning a Dangerous Thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(1), 10–28.

Downs, A (1972). Up and Down with Ecology—The “Issue-Attention Cycle”. Public Interest, 28, 38–50.

Peter Fray

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