Media: Hello marketing boys

Have we gone `awareness day' crazy? By Virginia Matthews
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The Independent Culture
NEXT YEAR the UK will have a record 380 "awareness campaigns" - which include everything from the Breast Cancer or Deaf/Blind awareness weeks to National Phone-In Sick Day or Gnome Appreciation Month. And they are in danger of being "hi-jacked by cynical marketers", according to the company that compiles the official register of such events.

Simon Barr, the director of The Profile Group, which for the past three years has attempted to control the alarming spread of awareness events, believes that "awareness fatigue" among the public is now at an all-time high.

Awareness campaigns have until recently been viewed as a fund-raising tool for charities, rather than as an inexpensive marketing device for manufacturers. In the past two years alone though, the number of awareness campaigns has soared by 72 per cent, with the majority of newly-sponsored days, weeks or months being for toe health or shinier hair, rather than for cystic fibrosis or homelessness.

The fact that companies tend to have bigger advertising budgets - or more proficient PR agencies - than most charities, means that the more worthwhile events tend to be "shouted down". According to Profile, however much sections of the media deride such events as National Chip Week or Pet Smile Month, "the coverage they get from all branches of the media is enormous; particularly, it seems, when the subject is funny or even crass".

While Gossard was severely criticised two years ago for holding Wonderbra Awareness Day on Breast Cancer Awareness Day - an event that spawned hundreds of photographs of cleavages, and rather less column inches about breast cancer - Mr Barr believes that marketers "are continuing to commercialise what was once a non-commercial publicity device". He says that firms would earn far more brownie points from the public if they showed a willingness to work with non-commercial organisations in the same sector.

"We can't actually ban any marketer ... but we can explain, as forcefully as we are able, that the public is going to get pretty sick of every day in the year being used as yet another marketing platform," he says. "The only way around it is for the marketing industry to pull out of the awareness slots altogether, or for them to make a real effort to tie in their vast publicity budgets with the organisations that are seen as promoting good causes."

Although US marketers avoid embarrassing awareness date-clashes with a strictly-controlled PR events register that allocates each "industry"or charity sector its own dedicated week or fortnight, Profile believes that the free-for-all that marks the UK's approach to awareness events is set to continue:

"Our advice to charities and voluntary organisations is not to let the marketers muscle in, but to fight fire with fire. Get the biggest, loudest and most audacious PR campaign that you can afford, make sure the media is fully aware of what it is that you are trying to achieve, and then blast the more cynical and marketing-led awareness events out of the water. The public will only support your efforts," says Mr Barr.