Monday, January 23, 2012

On self-aware awareness

Awareness, like engagement, has become quite devoid of meaning in this golden age of marketing spin and social media experts. Rather than being about education, consciousness and action, more often than not is now more about who is signifying their "awareness" than actually helping to spread a message.

Perhaps the most common subject we are reminded to increase our awareness of is breast cancer. Not cancer in general, but specifically breast cancer.

Pink bottles, pink chocolate, pink washing powder, pink eggs - are all there to contribute to the awareness of breast cancer and involve consumers. And all of which, in reality contribute an incredibly small amount of the purchaser's money toward breast cancer research, but remind us that our brands care enough to contribute an infinitesimal, tax deductable amount of their profits to our wellbeing.

Now, breast cancer (along with lung cancer) is the most common cause of cancer-related death in Australia, and one in nine women under the age of 85 will be diagnosed with it at some stage in their lives, but pink-washing is shameless; like green-washing it allows a company to make a token donation or gesture and then posture disproportionately about its contribution. Holly Hutchinson actually covered the discrepancies between profit and donation in a Drum piece on "think pink profiteers" in October.

But I am being unfair on our corporate friends (corporations are, of course, people now), because individuals are just as guilty of pink-washing; consciously or unconsciously.

In October 2011, a sea of pink washed into my Facebook News Stream as people changed their profile photos pink to support awareness of breast cancer, an initiative by CUA Bank, which had pledged to donate $1 for each changed picture. The total donation was capped at $15,000, which is completely fair and sensible, as an open ended promotion such as this could potentially bankrupt a company if a cap isn't set.

The donation itself was an admirable thing - and the pink tactic a clever one to engage people in the donation (and also, of course, let them know who was behind the chivalry) -
but the sea of pink didn’t stop; long after the cap had been reached, people were still turning their profile pictures pink, most not grasping the fact (or bothering to check) CUA that had actually met their quota. You can, in fact, still click through to the Pink my Profile link on the CUA Facebook page and join in on the fun.
Which is not a problem in and of itself. But what does it really do? The first 15 000 people held the bank to their donation, the others? Well realistically they were only increasing their social capital.

Sound petty? On face value, sure.

Who am I to tell you you’re being mercenary for showing your support?

But take away supporting the donation and what does the pink profile actually signify? Nothing but “I’m a good person, look at me being good.” It’s a back-slapping extravaganza with no actual benefit to cancer research, survivors or families.

Perhaps a further step along this path are the semi-regular “women’s only” Facebook status updates. The standard format is a message sent amongst women on facebook (women only, this is apparently important), with some instructions about posting an obtuse status update that follows a specific format. In the past this has been about bra colours, shoe sizes, where women keep their purses at home, and most recently, birth dates translated into fake plans for international trips (strangely not in-keeping with the gendered, vaguely sexual themes of previous years). The exact origin of this trend is unknown, but the idea is that it sparks interest among the clueless male friends of the status poster, involves women in the game and supposedly, under the guise of an in-joke, spreads awareness of breast cancer.

It’s all very clever (at least to the extent that any particularly successful chain-letter is), but at what stage does it actually make people more aware of breast cancer? How does an in-joke efficiently and persuasively disseminate information about self-examination to the women who spread the joke with a knowing wink, or encourage donation? Even if this information is included in the initial chain-status instructions, the setup and the play around the in-joke actually takes away from the seriousness of the issue.

Awareness is about more than being reminded that something exists. A sea of pink statuses, or in-joke statuses for women only, don’t do anything to increase people’s awareness of the issue or about general prevention - in fact they actually actively promote disengagement and apathy with the key issue they are meant to be promoting awareness of.

It also plays into the stereotype of social media as a tool for time wasting and narcissism. Social media can be a powerful platform when it engages people in real world change, but if the "awareness" remains in the domain of the virtual it has no real benefit.

The best way to spread awareness on the issue of cancer is to give people information about actual prevention, and avenues to donate. There are many good resources on how to self-examine for both testicular and breast cancer (two of the most common, virulent and easily discoverable cancers that affect young people) online, so do the right thing - tweet them, post them on your facebook, and check yourself.
And once you’ve done that, take a few dollars, maybe just two, and put it in a Cancer Council collection tin at your local supermarket. Hell, buy a few raffle tickets from Kids with Cancer (they have great prizes, you might even win).

And after you’ve done it, congratulate yourself. You’ve just done a lot more than change your status pink, or tell us where you keep your purse.

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