Are awareness days great social media marketing or a lazy, ineffective ploy. We investigated their origins and purpose.
In this social media-led world, awareness days are something we have in abundance. Every single day is dedicated to something, often more than once. You only have to log into Twitter to see a ‘hashtag holiday’ trending.
They can be based on absolutely anything: International Day of Peace (September 21), National Water Day (March 22), National Hotdog Day (July 23), Talk Like A Pirate Day (September 19). But how have we got to the point where anyone can create an awareness day?
For example, March 21st is:
- World Poetry Day
- Quilting Day
- Corn Dog Day
- Healthy Fats Day
- Slytherin Pride Day
- International Day of Forests
- World Down Syndrome Day
- Memory Day
- International Fragrance Day
- Single Parent’s Day
- French Bread Day
- Common Courtesy Day
That’s 12 causes attributed to one day. It’s baffling and overwhelming in equal measure.
I’m pretty sure Corn Dog Day goes directly against Healthy Fats Day, and I don’t think you can celebrate Slytherin Pride Day alongside the International Day of Forests, as Draco Malfoy was scared shitless of the Forbidden Forest. It seems you can pick and choose what you celebrate – the essence of which is lovely – but if there are no limits, then it becomes a bit contrived.
For marketers, the power of awareness days is like rocking horse poo. Ready-made campaign days where audiences freely promote their products and services on social media, what’s not to love? But it’s this mysterious willingness to celebrate something, on any random day, just because someone has said to, that’s interesting. For some, saying it’s National Ice Cream Day is enough of a reason for them to go out and buy ice cream. It reminds me a little of my parent’s saying “if they jumped off a cliff, would you too?”
This unconscious following speaks volumes about the digital world we bury ourselves in every day – but also stands as another topic entirely. What is worth lending thought to, however, is how Twitter fuels this mindless mindset and how becoming a trending topic is seen as validation of credibility. Awareness days thrive on herd mentality: the only reason people engage with the discussions is because they see others doing the same.
Does the influx of days dilute the power of them? I want to discover how we’ve got to this point and whether we should say no to any more being created.
How it all began
At the heart of awareness days is something kind and loving. Developed out of a need to shine a light on world issues, they emerged from the idea that everyone should recognise and work towards fixing holes in society.
The most notable of awareness days, in the form of national and international days, have been sanctioned by governing bodies. For instance, the United Nations recognises days such as World Wildlife Day, World Autism Awareness Day, and World Humanitarian Day.
Their reasoning is thus: “The United Nations designates specific days, weeks, years and decades as occasions to mark particular events or topics in order to promote, through awareness and action, the objectives of the Organization.”
The UN states that international days are a great advocacy tool for occasions that are important to them. It provides an opportunity to educate, mobilise political will and resources, and celebrate the achievements of humanity. The themes of the days are always linked to the primary actions of the UN, e.g. the maintenance of international peace and security and the protection of human rights.
The thought put into these days, and the importance of their topics, cannot be debated. With a powerful, respected body supporting them, these occasions hold undisputed weight and value. I think this marks an important differentiation we must focus on; if something was so just because one person decided it, the world would lack the order it has today. There’s a reason, whether you agree or not, that governments and laws are put in place – chaos would reign otherwise.
Hungry brands, low-hanging fruit
Another way awareness days come about is from brands and businesses. The motivation for this is to generate brand awareness and general product awareness as far as possible. National days have an obvious benefit – national reach.
Creating awareness days for the sole purpose of making money is not a new phenomenon: National Raisin Day, kicked off in April 30th 1909, and was promoted by the raisin growers of California via newspapers, flyers and radio, to boost their sales. Whilst they also educated folk about raisin recipes, their health benefits, deals and information, the response they got from local restaurants, hotels, steamships, schools and governments dramatically increased their profits.
This marketing technique was a stroke of genius. By setting up a day to celebrate their product, they could not only gain more brand awareness and a chance to tell people all about their business, but get away with repeating it annually to fill their coffers.
This tactic has been carried into modern times; many brands are the faces behind product-focused days such as National Ice Cream Day. There are hundreds of articles across the web listing awareness days that were created by brands and hundreds more that offer services to help you create your own awareness day as part of your brand strategy. Of course, these companies skew the numbers to make it look like not everyone is hopping on the bandwagon: the article claims there are ‘nearly 200 official awareness days’ – a figure research proves to be inaccurate, as there much, much more.
Eccentrics doing their thing
The final tier of creation comes from eccentrics: those with a passion for creating awareness days.
Adrienne Sioux Koopersmith, a lady in her 60’s in Chicago, is responsible for naming over 1900 National Days single-handedly, claiming that “the ordinary things in life are just as important as winning the lottery because these are the little things in life that get you through to the next moments.”
Koopersmith submits her ideas to Holly McGuire, Editor-in-Chief of ‘Chase’s Calendar of Events’ – an ultimate guide to special days (turns out, though, that something doesn’t have to have be that special to warrant its own day… National Argyle Day anyone?) The calendar of events started as a resource for businesses to keep track of actual holidays. Then they started accepting submissions, and people continued to celebrate the days, whether they were historical or not.
I think it’s a nice sentiment to appreciate the little things in life. I draw the line at them needing their own individual awareness days. My point is supported by the fact, for a mere $195, you can start your own national day, simply by filling in a form. If we all did that, then things would get out of control. But, it seems, they already have.
How awareness days were overtaken
The awareness day story gets muddied as authority overtakes reasoning. Whilst one would expect governments to reserve their powers for things of note, it doesn’t always go like that.
National Ice Cream Day was declared in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan as he wanted to boost the dairy industry because of the huge American surplus of cheese. By promoting ice cream, and other dairy products as a “nutritious and wholesome food”, he ensured an annual spike in ice cream sales. The repercussions of this day were wider than just this; as brands attempt to bigger and better each year on their National Ice Cream Day deals, we’ve now reached a point where we see ice cream giant Halo Top partnering with dating app Bumble for the occasion. This literally means if you get a date because of National Ice Cream Day, you’ve got Reagan and all his cheese to thank for it.
Many awareness days have been passed through US Congress; it was referred to as a ‘holiday factory’ in the 1980s. The peak of this was seen during 1985-1986 where 1 in 3 laws being passed were holiday-related. There’s a nice soundbite of a speaker standing to discuss ‘National Golf Day’, something I think we can all agree should be at the forefront of American politics.
The House of Representatives eventually put a stop to this, recognising it as a waste of Congress’ time, but the damage was already done. The calendar was littered with awareness days, opening the floodgates for others to follow suit. After all, if politicians are spending time advocating for National Golf Day, surely it must be important?
And so, the popularity of creating awareness days snowballed into an unstoppable force. The benefits of making your own day sing to every marketer, regardless of industry, country, beliefs, and it is this collective effort from many ‘authority’ figures – governments, ‘official’ sites and books, big businesses – that has led the way into the chaos we have today.
The staggering scale
It’s difficult to get an accurate figure of the number of awareness days out there: National Day Calendar claims to celebrate over 1,500 national days a year; Chase’s Calendar of Events holds 12,500 entries but includes historical birthdays and other notable occasions. Yet, Koopersmith claims to have created 1,900 awareness days by herself, so who’s the real winner here?
The point is, the figures are out of control and unverifiable. The fact there’s no official figure speaks volumes about the unofficial-feel of the entire thing. Why do people care? What is it about awareness days that make people want to get involved?
The answer is more clear cut for those micro-holidays that are steeped in good intentions and backed by world organisations to raise awareness for important topics. But why does National Talk Like A Pirate Day gain traction? It’s more than just ‘having a laugh’ when businesses spend real budgets on it.
Well, awareness days are a big win-win for brands. If they create one themselves, it’s like throwing a birthday party – you have it every year, you decide on the decorations, the cake, the theme, and then open the doors to all your friends. In return, you get lots of praise, presents and get to be the centre of attention. And the support for it just rolls in; it’s the business version of a girl’s friends commenting fire emojis underneath her latest selfie: expected, obvious and replicated everywhere you go.
Awareness days on acid
The current state of awareness days is pure, unrestrained craziness. Take a recent example on Twitter. World Book Day on March 4th is very well celebrated: kids go to school dressed as their favourite book characters, bookshops across the world put on promotions, social media is littered with people’s to-be-read lists. You get the picture.
Then, on the 23rd of April, this post appeared on my Twitter feed. I was confused – was it World Book Day again?! More confusingly, this example is from a Nigerian bank, a strange brand to be posting about books.
A quick Google search assured me that WBD was indeed on March 4th. But people were tweeting about it, so what was going on?
It turns out that April 23rd is World Book Night.
This confusion meant that the only reason people were talking about it was to correct others. And big brands were fulling the fire by blindly creating content to celebrate World Book Day, highlighting the fact they churn out things regardless of whether it’s relevant to them or they’ve done their research.
What was even more interesting was that those who had done their research… had managed to get even more confused. Surely if the whole point is awareness, the message should be clear?
To clarify: World Book Day (also known as World Book and Copyright Day, and International Day of the Book) is March 4th, and is organised by UNESCO. World Book Night takes place on April 23rd and is hosted by The Reading Agency, a London-based charity. World Book Night doesn’t differentiate itself enough from World Book Day, in my opinion, for it to stand strong enough on its own two feet without confusion. But, we’ll move on.
The key point here is that, even the most respected awareness days are losing their value as they become confused and celebrated with no thought, meaning or actual knowledge behind them. And it’s easy to see why.
Another example is Mother’s Day. The woman who created the day, Anna Jarvis, ended up regretting it entirely. Created out of an appreciation for the selflessness and efforts of every mother, “Anna envisioned the holiday as a home-coming, a day to honour your mother, the one woman who dedicated her life to you.”
Yet, as the day grew in popularity, businesses jumped on the chance to turn a profit. Prices of flowers, particularly carnations, went through the roof. Jarvis released a press release condemning such behaviour; “what will you do to rout charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?”
But it made no difference, and by 1920, she was urging people not to buy flowers at all. Jarvis herself never profited from the day, and her final act was to go door-to-door in Philadelphia to get signatures to rescind the day altogether.
My question: if the people trying to raise awareness are money-orientated, does that mean their intentions are disingenuous?
The floral, greeting card and candy industries’ commercialisation of Mother’s Day have increased awareness dramatically; as a result, does this give them part-ownership of Mother’s Day? After all, who truly ‘owns’ an awareness day?
I think it’s this sense of an awareness day belonging to everyone that makes it lovely and yet horrible at the same time. The unity of awareness days is well-meant, and celebrating mothers, for example, is a worthwhile occasion. But once money is introduced, and marketers find a way to capitalise from it, the meaning gets skewed – the same reason Jarvis protested against it. Going back to the WBD example, when people partake merely for their own brand benefits, the message becomes diluted. So, we revert to the biggest question of all: should we even bother?
National Create Crap Content Year
There’s a difference between brands that create a day and those that engage with existing ones. The difference is the size of the shoehorn: by creating their own day, brands are able to align themselves closely to something that relates to them. They’re still creating something out of nothing, but the topic is usually relevant – they’ve owned the occasion.
Many brands that create content surrounding trending hashtag holidays use the biggest shoehorn. It can be difficult to come up with ideas for content, especially for dull niches, so participating in a micro-holiday provides ready-made ideas. This is how awareness days have collapsed into the slums of social media: lazy marketing.
Take this example from CBS Sacramento, a Twitter account for news in California. It has 127.5k followers and posted this video on National Pet Day.
It received one like.
Surely, if CBS truly understood their audience, they would have put the resources spent on this video into more news-worthy content, particularly during a pandemic. Whether it’s National Pet Day or not, your focus should be on what matters to your brand.
Many blogs boast that awareness days help show your audience what is important to you; if you support National Veterans’ Day it tells people you respect the military and their efforts. But, if you don’t actively post content about this awareness day, people don’t assume you then hate veterans. Once you engage in this ‘cycle of awareness’, where do you stop? If you don’t celebrate National Black Cat Day, people aren’t going to think your office is full of dead black cats.
By forcing your brand to align itself with these generic days, you’re not offering anything valuable to the conversation. And this is what fuels the pointlessness of it all.
Fancy an ice cream?
Going out to buy an ice cream, just because someone has said today is National Ice Cream Day, feels baffling to me. In contrast, recognising a day as World Water Day, which is backed by the UN, to raise awareness for the fact people in this world don’t have access to fresh drinking water, has a reason. The problem is, however, that this subjectivity opens up a moral debate of what topics are important enough to warrant an awareness day.
But, surely by having National Ice Cream Day you’re weakening the power of World Water Day. By having so many days, you allow people to see them happening, and dismiss them as, not even ‘just another awareness day’, but rather ‘just another day’. They’re around all the time, so they’ve become meaningless. The outcome of promoting so many days is that you promote none at all.
The saturation of awareness days causes blindness: you’re in fact doing the opposite of your intention and painting them all with the same brush.
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