Consulting, Research and Speaking on Health and Media Issues

The “Awareness” Trap

Not long ago, a medical supply company had a nice thought. One of their product lines was hospital gloves; what if they manufactured a special line of pink gloves, to increase awareness of breast cancer? “We thought that seeing health care workers wear pink gloves would remind people to talk about breast cancer,” a company spokesperson told ABC News. It became a minor hit on YouTube, which triggered free media coverage.

A public relations success, no? But to what end?

The people involved had the noblest of intentions. They’re warm, empathic and dedicated to their cause. But they’re wasting their time and, perhaps, even undermining what should be their true goals.

Think about it for a moment. What does “raise awareness” mean in that context? Do they really think that the typical viewer of their video is blissfully unaware of the existence of breast cancer? Even if that’s the case—and I strongly doubt it—what will simply raising awareness accomplish?

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Unfortunately, I see examples of this type of thinking all the time in media programs and campaigns created by and for commercial, government and non-profit organizations. Their hearts are in the right place, but their brains haven’t fully thought through the implications of making “awareness” a goal.

Here are three critical ways that this type of approach falls short:

First, they haven’t defined their target audience. Instead, they’re trying to use the same channel(s) of communication and the same message(s) to reach a broad range or even an undefined group of people. No wine goes well with every dish. No airline flies to every airport. And no medium or message reaches more than a few well-defined audiences with reasonable effectiveness.

In my experience as a consultant, this approach usually comes about when someone in the organization gloms onto a medium (“Hey, let’s produce a viral video!”) and uses the nature of that medium to guide the content that, in turn, drives the behavioral result. It reminds me of those classic Andy Hardy movies from the 1930s. (“I have some costumes in the barn out back. Let’s put on a show!”)

This is, of course, the opposite of the most powerful approach. Your strategy for behavioral, emotional and cognitive effects on a well-defined target audience should guide you to the medium you use. That medium, whether it’s a poster or a high-definition broadcast documentary series, should help you shape the content.

Second, the goals are vague or even tangential. While it may be relatively simple to measure whether you’ve raised awareness of a product, event, topic or person, that’s rarely a useful objective. Among the three components of an effective media campaign, cognitive changes are almost always less valuable than emotional or behavioral changes.

Almost all smokers, for example, know that tobacco is dangerous. Patrons at fast food restaurants will freely admit that greasy, deep-fried food is unhealthy. Transferring knowledge to another person can be simple and straightforward. Getting them to act on that knowledge is the real challenge.

Third, all too often these approaches are taken primarily for the benefit of the participants in the campaign rather than for the purported audience. They’re feel-good pieces. Think of the public service announcements that ad agencies create and submit for awards so that their art directors and producers get some shiny hardware for their figurative mantles.

I hope that the makers of this YouTube video had a great time dancing in front of the camera. They were all volunteers. The videographer and editor were clearly amateurs in the best sense of that word. (They worked out of love.) And when they saw the finished product, I’m sure that they smiled and applauded themselves.

All of that is fine—even laudable—if you’re an amateur and you simply want to have some fun. But if this is your business, you have to avoid the “raising awareness” trap.