Photo credit: Mental Health America of Greater Houston

“Awareness does not always associate with action or effectiveness,” Carrie Baron says. “Just because you’re aware doesn’t mean that you’re changing the situation.”

Earlier this year, an article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review urged organizations to “Stop Raising Awareness Already,” decrying the abundance of communications campaigns that fail to gain long-term traction. Another article asked readers to reevaluate their relationship with their daily diet of graphic images — a device whose utility and even morality has been called into question.

This week, communication experts Dr. Mike Mackert and Carrie Baron, M.D. join host Ike Evans in an insightful discussion provoked by these articles, kicking around ideas about what motivates action in a digitally powered information market.

Both guests are faculty at The University of Texas at Austin, where Mackert is director of the Center for Health Communication at the Moody College of Communications, and Baron directs the Creativity for Resilience Program and teaches as an assistant professor in psychiatry. They open a dialogue on the intersection of health and media that engages a wide range of current issues and perspectives.

Awareness: Too Much of a Good Thing?

In many ways, the victories and pitfalls of twenty-first century awareness campaigns demonstrate the good, the bad and the ugly of mass media technology.

Granted, messages and images travel at unprecedented speeds and reach audiences of unprecedented sizes. But trending hashtags shift with every news cycle, and aren’t necessarily an effective means of sparking behavioral change.

When information does have some staying power, it’s not always for the better. “Some awareness can be bad awareness if it makes people hold perceptions that aren’t accurate or creates information that is really hard to dislodge later,” Mackert says.

An appetite for clicks dominates media culture — a game that even activists must play. Shock and awe appeals, though rich in emotional currency, can fizzle out fast if they lack direction and foresight.

“I think it’s really important to look at how people actually change,” Baron says, “and what actually has to happen with them psychologically and emotionally for them to be receptive to doing things differently.”

She refers to the “comfort level” maintained by individual consumers that limits their capacity for absorbing and relating to information. This pre-existing template isn’t impenetrable, but it certainly presents challenges for those who aim to do more than attract page views.

“It’s a lot harder to use communication as a tool to change people’s behavior,” Mackert says.

Beyond the Image: Sustaining Impact

Imagery is often at the center of debates about what can incentivize action and behavioral change. Typically, what’s in question isn’t the power of an image, but whether or not that power is being wielded judiciously.

“I think sometimes people can get inert to images if they’re too strong, too graphic, and too dramatic, so that can turn off the compassion,” Baron says.

Intentional image choice is a fixture of public health campaigns, and mental health is no exception. Advocates and organizations typically circulate depictions of mental illness that err on the side of suffering, grief and hopelessness. Mackert suggests that this tactic can benefit from asking the right questions about what comes after the image.

“What’s the payoff? What’s the next step?” Mackert says. “What are you asking people to do that’s different or meaningful in some way?”

Maybe solidarity, rather than sentiment, should be the messengers’ rallying cry. Oklahoma City’s OKC Million program is cited by Baron as an example of awareness crusading at its best.

However, long-term change — in the mental health field and elsewhere —ultimately requires a more wholesale, cross-sector effort that includes action on the policy front. It also requires campaigners to think critically about who they’re trying to persuade.

“I think one of the hardest things to do in communications is take three or four steps backwards,” Mackert says, “and go back to thinking about what it is like to be the average person, and what they think about this issue.”

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