It’s common still to see campaigns that set objectives and goals around ‘raising awareness’.
Here are two reasons I wish this wasn’t such a big part of the campaigning lexicon:
‘Raising’ is the least problematic part of it. But it’s still not great.
For a start, it suggests that awareness is a thing you either have enough of or don’t.
And it tends to assume that you have the right amount of awareness whilst other people have defective amounts.
It’s true that in many campaigns, something you think is important may be going unobserved or unrecognised, or at least un-acted upon.
And you might have good reasons, and good evidence, for thinking it’s important.
But it doesn’t follow that others’ inaction is down to an insufficiency of ‘awareness’.
Falling back on the idea that the solution lies in raising, in some way, people’s awareness can easily be a substitute for developing a sound understanding of divergent perspectives and motivations, and the factors underlying them, and the real barriers to progress.
At a policy level, barriers to progress are more likely to be about lack of political will to action than lack of awareness of an issue.
And with wider public audiences, if people just don’t care about something as much as you think they should, that doesn’t point to the need for their awareness to be raised.
(And, as an aside, the only thing worse than ‘raising awareness’ is ‘raising public awareness’. Any strategy that identifies the – undifferentiated – public as a target audience has the dual disadvantage of being (a) impossible and (b) pointless.)
In most cases, it’s not that people are aware or not of a situation or issue. They just experience it differently, and have a different understanding and reading of it, and its importance – to them and to others.
There may be discrete times where lack of knowledge of the impacts of current policy and practice on particular groups, for example, might be contributing to holding back action.
But even then, that’s not addressed by a generalised idea of raising people’s awareness, which at best is a vague, untargeted response, and at worst is likely to be wholly disconnected from the change you actually want to bring about.
The thing about ‘awareness’ is that it is never an end in itself. Someone’s raised awareness, in itself, doesn’t bring any practical benefit to anybody.
It doesn’t materially help anyone, it doesn’t actually make any difference to anything, unless something happens as a result.
Awareness gets identified as a thing because it is assumed to be a means to a desired end.
Essentially the logic seems to be that if people have elevated awareness they will then think and act differently. And it’s very tempting when thinking about strategy to collapse to a simple linear model, along the following kind of lines:
Raised awareness -> improved knowledge -> change in attitudes -> change in behaviour
But there’s vanishingly little evidence – in behavioural psychology or anywhere else – that suggest those elements link in that sort of way.
Beliefs about what is true may typically be informed by attitudes, rather than informing them, for example. And relationships between attitudes and behaviour are equally fluid and complex.
So in pretty much all cases, any campaign logic constructed from the idea that focusing on awareness is a route to meaningful change is built on sand.
Instead, in any context, we have to understand the motivations and barriers to action – of decision makers, but also those who might, or might not, act to influence them.
When thinking about what is preventing people from acting, if you alight on the need for awareness raising then you’ve almost certainly got off at the wrong stop.
And you are heading down the road to mangled strategy and ineffective tactics.