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By Maria Lahiffe
You do important work, which you want the world to know about, so that they can help your cause in whatever way they can. So you want to do an awareness campaign. Surely, the thinking goes, if people know about the problem, they’ll do something about it.
Stop right there.
There is a common misconception that people will change their behaviours if only they have enough accurate information. This is known in the communications field as the Information Deficit Model. The problem is, this model has been completely debunked.   
Make no mistake, awareness is a critical step in creating an environment in which change is possible. If people don’t know about an issue, then they can’t support it. The problem is that awareness campaigns as they are currently being run can actually be demotivating or even harmful to the cause.
Research shows that sharing information in an engaging way can lead to further sharing of that information but does not necessarily lead to changes in behaviour. For example, the American CDC launched a Zombie Apocalypse Campaign in 2011, aimed at using humour to raise awareness of the need for emergency preparedness (e.g. tornado or flooding). The initial blog post was so popular that the CDC’s website crashed due to the number of visitors. It trended on Twitter and was covered by CNN and the Wall Street Journal. 
The CDC followed this up by a social media campaign giving people information on how to prepare an emergency preparedness kit. It was an engaging campaign, which was widely shared, with a clear call to action – to make a kit. A subsequent study showed, however, that the humorous message, while garnering plenty of buzz and wide reach through social sharing, actually made people less likely to prepare a kit. “The very humour that made the campaign popular may also have diluted its effectiveness.” 
When the goal is simple awareness, your campaign runs the risk of reaching an audience which is already convinced of your goals, or possibly one which is unsympathetic to your goals.
An example of the latter is seafood awareness campaigns which used food labels to reduce consumers’ consumption of certain overfished seafood. Studies have shown that the campaign has given some unscrupulous suppliers an economic incentive to deceive consumers by packaging different fish under the eco-friendly label. For example, researchers found through DNA sampling that 75% of fish sold as red snapper in the US was actually of a different species such as shark. 
A catchy awareness campaign can actually create an environment which encourages a behaviour it is meant to reduce. For example, Victoria Rail in Melbourne, Australia, ran a campaign in 2012 to raise awareness of the dangers of getting near metro trains. The campaign, which included a catchy song with the lyrics, “Dumb ways to die, so many dumb ways to die,” a video, and a game, was widely shared throughout 28 countries. 
Here’s the problem, though: while the campaign was aimed at reducing rail accidents by getting people to be more careful around trains, the data show that only 25% of deaths associated with heavy rail were due to accidents. The vast majority were suicides. A catchy earworm and cute game may have actually made death seem more appealing to people who were already at risk, a phenomenon which is well-documented in academic literature. 
Awareness campaigns can be really problematic when they are related to potentially controversial issues. The campaign can actually cause a halt or even a regression in progress on the issue in question. An example is the HPV vaccine.
In 2006, public health officials recommended that all adolescent girls be vaccinated against human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually-transmitted disease which causes cancer. This recommendation was followed by a national lobbying campaign and a vaccination requirement linked to school enrollment. This lobby campaign was rolled out very quickly at the behest of the drug company which made the vaccine, who were focused on establishing market dominance for their product. 
This mandate became a political battleground because social conservatives viewed the vaccination as a gateway to sexual promiscuity. Prior to the controversy, 90% of children received the vaccine, which dropped to 33% of girls and 7% of boys in the following years. Research shows that people believe information about vaccines which supports their cultural and political views. When vaccination information is presented by a political entity, then people are more likely to retrench to their cultural “camps” and behave accordingly. The rollout of this vaccination would likely have been uncontroversial had there not been such a high-profile awareness campaign. 
This post has discussed reasons why you should be really careful about creating a campaign which is solely focused on creating awareness. Not only are you unlikely to inspire a desired behaviour change, you may in fact hurt your cause. In a future post, we will discuss ways to create awareness which actually leads to action.
All of this is part of communications planning, which is covered in an upcoming course with Volunteer Ottawa. Come learn how to get your message out effectively to the people who matter.
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