Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

On Orchestrating Awareness. Or: Things you Really Need to Know

by Melanie Brand

When was the last time you donated to an organization – be it money, time or blood? Do you remember what motivated you to do so? And how did you learn about the organization and their cause? What made you aware and inspired you to take action?

people dumping icecold water onto their heads
Foto: APAC Ice Bucket Challenge by
tenz1225 @ flickr. Some rights reserved.

Sometimes we make experiences that affect us in such a profound way that they may influence our behaviour and change our attitudes. After you nearly ran over a cyclist because you were distracted by your phone may lead you to pay more attention when participating in traffic in the future. At other times, other people’s experiences may affect the ways in which we act. Say, a colleague tells you about her research on hazardous working conditions in the textile industry. As a consequence, your choices as a consumer might differ in the future. After having made such experiences or gained substantial insights, you sometimes cannot but behave in a certain way.

Speaking of an ‘experience’ or an ‘insight’ is a classification we make, distinguishing occurrences of our everyday lives to which we assign special meaning. These have the potential to sensitise us for topics we might not have known about or have ignored in the past. Instances and interactions that raise people’s awareness are part of the everyday and occur on individual levels, depending on the context. They are usually not planned for and seem to ‘just happen’. Furthermore, what affects one person may have only little or no impact on another.

However, there are practices that aim at intentionally creating insights or experiences that should influence people’s behaviour leading to a desired outcome. These can be captured under the term ‚awareness-raising practices’. Awareness-raising comes in many shapes and styles: media campaigns highlighting the risks of unprotected sex or drunk driving, the portrayal of individual life-stories in newspapers educating about the importance of registering as an organ donor, fair trade symbols, marches against gender-based violence, art projects and many more. In order to get a glimpse of the magnitude and scope of the existing awareness days, weeks and months you should visit the website ‘Awareness Days UK’ where you can find out what is currently going on in the world of orchestrated awareness.

Is knowing about something already enough?

A common characteristic of initiatives aiming to raise awareness is the organised and often institutionalised attempt to impart knowledge in order to overcome non-knowledge or ignorance. The basic assumption seems to be the following: if only people knew about certain topic or aspects, they would act accordingly, making informed rational choices. In this way, awareness-raising practices privilege specific segments of reality to which they wish to draw special attention. For example, the chances of people knowing about the rare disease ALS have drastically increased after the world-wide ‘ice bucket challenge’ that conquered social media in 2014 and 2015. In campaigns like this, awareness-raising goes hand in hand with fundraising.

Let’s take a look at another prominent example that most will be familiar with. As of May 2016, cigarette packs in the EU member states have to carry health-related warning messages consisting of textual information and a corresponding colour photograph taken from a pre-selected picture database (Directive 2014/109/EU). The images vary from graphic illustrations showing foul teeth or surgical wounds to more abstract depictions like the shape of an embryo in an ashtray. In German, these are also referred to as ‘Schockbilder’ (shocking pictures).

In campaigns like this, awareness-raising constitutes a moralising practice classifying and distinguishing responsible from irresponsible, conscious from inconsiderate, desirable from non-desirable, in short: good from bad behaviour.

In which ways do these warning messages aim to raise awareness?

The packages provide information in the form of an illustration and a text. They contain educational elements (“smoking causes 9 out of 10 pulmonary carcinomas”) that are meant to affect your attitude towards smoking and ultimately influence your behaviour: quit smoking. However, it is questionable if campaigns that solely rely on the ‘power of awareness’ really lead to the desired effects. What about measures like the continuous increase in prices or the smoking ban in restaurants that directly impact people’s choices – aren’t they more effective? We all know that we should probably eat healthier, do more sports, get enough sleep and maybe skip that glass of wine once in a while. Sometimes, being aware does not automatically lead us to behave responsibly. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the “attitude-action gap” (see Kollmuss & Agyeman 2002).

Instead of evaluating their efficiency, it may be more interesting to think about the warning messages as ‚awareness traces‘ or as “continuous beginnings” – as Tanja Thielemann* puts  it – that aim to stabilise awareness on the dangers of smoking as part of a wider discourse. The red ribbon that is used in the context of HIV/AIDS campaigns constitutes another well-known example of such awareness traces. These traces may be linked to individual experiences and thus become endowed with further meaning. For example, the warning images and texts may speak to you in a different way if a family member has recently been diagnosed with cancer.

Reactions to awareness-raising campaigns are manifold and also encompass satire (see ‘Save the little pastries’ comic) and rejection. So have the warning messages on cigarette packs led to an increase in sales of cases that hide the nasty pictures. A qualitative study conducted with 160 smokers in Australia showed that graphic warning pictures provoked negative emotions like guilt and shame to which smokers reacted by engaging in avoidant coping behaviours that limited their exposure to the images – however, not by smoking less (Hardcastle et al 2016). Here, the confrontation with the information aiming to raise awareness was outright rejected. Thus, “uncomfortable knowledge” (see Dedieu et al. 2015) was met with wilful ignorance.

Things you really need to know

  • Why do people decide to raise awareness?
  • What do they want to accomplish?
  • How do they go about it?
  • In which ways is awareness-raising institutionalised and part of a political agenda?
  • In which ways might awareness-raising practices bear resemblance to mission, fundraising, advertisement or even propaganda?

These are some of the questions we would like to discuss in the workshop "Things you really need to know. Awareness-raising as a socio-cultural practice" from 12 to 14 October 2017.

Regionally focusing on how awareness-raising takes shape in South Africa, we will look at diverse topics such as the Black Consciousness Movement during Apartheid, critical discourse analysis in a post-truth world, sustainability in the cut flower industry, public debates on ‘traditional authority’, security and crime prevention, public relations activities of a gay rugby club, awareness-raising in and for academia, activism concerning sanitation infrastructure as well as domestic violence prevention programs.

Melanie Brand is a PhD candidate and research associate at the Department for Social and Cultural Anthropology and the Center of Excellence “Cultural Foundations of Social Integration,” both at the University of Konstanz. She is part of the PhD group “Europe in the Globalized World.”

You can find her research blog at https://down-the-rabbit-hole.me 

* Tanja Thielemann uses the term "continuous beginnings" in her project on diversity discourses and practices in order to refer to the character of the numerous events and publications aiming at sensitizing people for the importance of 'diversity' in various contexts. For further information, see her cv

Dedieu, François, Jean-Noël Jouzel, and Amy Jacobs: "How to Ignore What One already Knows.", Revue française de sociologie, 56.1 (2015): 105-133.

Directive 2014/109/EU

Hardcastle, Sarah. J., Chan, D. C., Caudwell, K. M., Sultan, S., Cranwell, J., Chatzisarantis, N. L., & Hagger, M. S.: „Larger and More Prominent Graphic Health Warnings on Plain-packaged Tobacco Products and Avoidant Responses in Current Smokers. A Qualitative Study.“, International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 23.1 (2016): 94-101.

Kollmuss, Anja, and Julian Agyeman: "Mind the Gap. Why do People Act Environmentally and What are the Barriers to Pro-environmental Behavior?“, Environmental Education Research, 8.3 (2002): 239-260.

About the workshop

The workshop “Things you really need to know. Awareness-raising as a socio-cultural practice” is organised by Melanie Brand and Thomas Kirsch. Funding was granted by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Center of Excellence ‘Cultural Foundations of Social Integration.’ If you are interested in attending the workshop, please contact the organisers.

further information on the workshop and the keynote speech “Ways of Seeing, Ways of Doing, Ways of Knowing” by Dan Magaziner (Yale)