Facebook Child Abuse Awareness Campaign: Lame? Or Helpful?

Over the last few days a lot of people have been changing their profile photos to the beloved cartoon characters of their childhoods. I noticed on Thursday or Friday morning that a few of my Facebook friends had changed their photos to characters, and thought there must be something up.

Finally one of my friends included an explanation with his change to a cartoon avatar:

“(re: why there are cartoon images on profile pics): This was TOO fun to miss! Change your Facebook 
profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood! The goal is to not see
a human face on Facebook till Monday, December 6th. Join the fight 
against child abuse! Copy & paste this message to your status to 
invite all your friends to do the same!”

Well, why not? It was fun to see which of my friends chose which cartoon characters, and interesting to see the decade changes in cartoons, depending on friends’ ages. I had fun going down memory lane for just a moment, as I debated between a Peanut’s character and Bugs Bunny. I settled on Charlie Brown, switching mid-weekend to Linus, from the Christmas special. I did a Google image search in both cases to find just the right avatar.

And I was not alone, since millions of people were doing the same thing over the weekend. One Los Angeles Times technology blog post reported that on Saturday morning, the top 20 Google searches were related to old cartoons.

Worthwhile or Worthless?

Did this do ANYTHING to prevent child abuse? Probably not. There was some debate among my friends as to whether this was a scam, an urban myth, or just a lame exercise. Were we all being duped into changing our profile pics for no good reason?

I got into a friendly debate on one of my friend’s posts quoting one of her friends who said that red ribbons for HIV awareness, or pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness, never helped anyone. I pushed back, saying that I don’t agree that awareness campaigns don’t help people (I’ll explain more in a moment). The man who made the statement shared that his point wasn’t about the ribbons per se, but that most of the people who sport the ribbons are in effect posers who don’t volunteer and don’t contribute money to the causes they purport to be supporting. I pushed back again, saying that even if a person’s motive for wearing a ribbon (or changing a profile pic) is not sincere, when others see the ribbon it still brings to mind the cause that is being advertised.

Were all of us who changed our profile pics posers this weekend? How many of us really do anything substantive to end violence against children? Are we hypocrites for following the rest of the crowd by jumping on board with a fun, but shallow, exercise? Or, did we actually raise some awareness about curbing child abuse?

I’m of two minds about this. Do I think awareness campaigns work? Yes. But I’ll add this caveat: they work when well organized by legitimate organizations. Did this campaign to raise awareness about child abuse work? Perhaps. But in a way it was a wasted exercise precisely because it wasn’t well organized.

But boy did it show the power of social media, and I believe it holds a powerful message for non-profit organizations that want to create positive change in the world.

Awareness Campaigns Do Work

Here’s why I think awareness campaigns are effective. I worked for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) San Diego County in the late 1980s. MADD pioneered the use of red ribbons to raise awareness about drunk driving during the holidays, before the symbol was co-opted by HIV/AIDS organizations (It’s now referred to as the “Tie One On For Safety” campaign). We distributed thousands of red ribbons stapled to info cards that warned of the dangers of impaired driving. In San Diego County we did such a good job of distributing ribbons, it was hard to go anywhere without seeing a red ribbon on someone’s car antennae from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.

Thanks to the massive awareness effort by MADD chapters across the country, drunk driving fatalities fell consistently each year. People thought twice about getting behind the wheel after drinking. Designated drivers became the norm. Friends were not letting friends drive drunk. And because of all that, countless people got home safely instead of being killed by a drunk or impaired driver.

A friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer during October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when pink ribbons were everywhere. Even NFL players were sporting pink ribbons, pink shoes, and pink gloves during games. My friend told me that seeing the show of pink all over was comforting. It let her know that she was not alone, and that millions of people were rooting for breast cancer patients to be cured, and for the disease to be eradicated.

These campaigns worked, because non-profit organizations mounted well-publicized campaigns to educate the public about their causes. MADD didn’t ask volunteers to distribute the ribbons to friends with only the most basic of explanations of what the ribbons were for. MADD planned for months ahead of the holidays how to educate as many people as possible through media interviews, public service announcements, and speeches at schools, businesses, military bases, and other venues.

Lesson for Non-Profits

While I’m dubious about the motives of this latest mass profile picture change exercise, it does illustrate the power of social media. That power can be harnessed to bring about positive change, when harnessed properly.

Non-profit leaders take notice: with some careful planning your cause could be the next major social media trend. But you’ll have to be creative about it, because sooner or later those of us on social media sites will grow weary of too many appeals.

For me, ribbons and bracelets are done. The first few organizations that utilized them were effective, but when dozens of other non-profits started using the same symbols in different colors, it definitely lost some punch for me. Changing profile pictures – which has already been done a few times in the past year – is going to get old, as well.

What do you think? Was this past weekend’s Facebook trend a useful or useless exercise?

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