International Days Are a Total Farce
24 hours won’t save your sibling relationship, the whales, or the environment.
As a child, you think your birthday is amazing and special and awesome – “A whole day? With people singing for me? This is the best!” And then you realize: Oh, everyone gets one?
The last week or so saw National Burrito Day (4 April), International Children’s Book Day (2 April), World Autism Awareness Day (also 2 April), World Health Day (7 April), National Maritime Day (5 April), and National Sibling Day (April 10). A quick Google search (there’s a Google Developer Day, too) leads one to reams and lists of International and World Days observed for a variety of causes, issues, diseases, and important movements. It’s time to wonder if everything gets a birthday every year – and if it’s affecting how much people care anymore.
The United Nations (and its factions) have almost 130 — 130, folks, that’s more than one-third of a year — different highlighted days. International Days, Weeks, Years and Decades are established to inform the world about issues like human trafficking, non-communicable diseases, discrimination of HIV/AIDS, racism, gender equality, or the access to justice and fair trial.
The United States has more than 200 days. Modern marketing has released a kraken of syrupy days on us, urging us to unconsciously consume more and more. While the intentions and desired results of the capitalistic US market and the UN are poles apart, it cannot be denied that one is dependent on the other. No one needs the UN to celebrate Mothers’ Day or Valentine’s Day. But the UN does need marketing to help spread awareness.
Let’s use cancer as an example. Movements around this disease have helped spread awareness about this disease over the years; pink ribbons, events, magazines and celebrities have spoken out about cancer and its dangers.
One of the most memorable uses of social media in 2010 was a fast-spreading status update chain that only consisted of one word: a color. What’s more, the posts were only being made by women. Why? A cancer awareness campaign had asked women to write the color of their bra in their status. To spread the wings of breast cancer awareness. But how? This happened year after year with pseudo-titillating status updates that were the text equivalent of a dirty phone call. Not once did these updates list symptoms, danger signs, or treatment information. But people joined up in droves, defining the then-emergent term ‘slacktivism.’
And that’s what these Days are reduced to now – hashtags and perhaps a few over-circulated photos of a tiny and inconsequential event, if you’re lucky.
‘Slacktivism’ seems also to perfectly sum up the process of how these days are determined. According to Thibault Devanlay, a negotiator at the UN General Assembly, “days are easy cookies.” When it comes to finding solutions for the issues at hand, days are easy for countries to propose, because they don’t come with financial strings. And if the subject isn’t controversial, no one else opposes it. After all, isn’t everyone okay to agree to a moral high-ground, as long as they don’t have to change anything or pay through their noses? “Once a proposal is on the table, no one says no,” Devanlay said. Kind of like our approach to burritos. Hey there, #NationalBurritoDay!
But are these Days actually making an impact? Changing behavior? Making a difference? No one knows. Reports on specific days might tell you if they make a difference, but otherwise, it’s just another Day.
An article in The Atlantic on raising awareness refers to a sociological theory called narcotizing dysfunction, which proposes that the more people learn about an issue from the media, the less likely they are to do something about it. So people might “conflate being knowledgeable about a health issue with taking action to address it.” This explains why the very words “I’m doing this for cancer awareness” seem to hold more weight than any actual knowledge about cancer. And, the worst part is that the awareness is limited to that particular day, instead of being something that is carried forward or practised.
Increasingly, the bigger problem has become the all-inclusive nature of these events. Why is World Television Day (November 21) celebrated by the UN, the same organization that celebrates World Autism Awareness Day (April 2)? Is television something the UN needs to be raising awareness about? Frivolous days are creeping into the woodwork; and sadly those are the ones getting more attention than the real deal.
The Days might have been started with good intentions – but like with everything else, the scourge of marketing and consumerism have completely taken over. Brands crawl all over Days, inventing their own (National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day, 12 April, which is really every day for some people) and hawking all manner of crap, effectively hijacking mindspace and attention spans. And even sillier ‘causes’ like World Naked Gardening Day (5 May — curtains at the ready), National Chucky (yes, the doll) Day (25 October), National Doughnut Day (first Friday of June), and even a Dress Up Your Pet Day (so depressing that I decline to give you the date).
How did all these crazy days get started, you ask? Well, as does everything slightly shady and weird – on the Internet. The National Day Calendar website lets you register any day you want (Any. Day. You. Want.) by just filling in a form. All my dreams of #GlobalAkhilaRocksDay could finally come true. If only I could find a date/day that already doesn’t celebrate multiple other things – I thought April 9 would be good, but that was already National Unicorn Day, and National Name Yourself for a day Day. Those guys would steal my thunder for sure.
It’s already hard enough to convince millions of people that UNESCO is not giving out ‘Best Prime Minister’ awards – trying to inject some amount of verified information into the sea of puns, jokes and hashtags that surround these days seems pointless. Everyone on social media is playing to the likes, seizing the easiest hashtags and jokes over information or actual awareness about any issue. And that’s irritating and obfuscating. It’s harder to see what should be seen, and harder to find correct information in the depths of hyperbole and misinformation.
We need to reduce the number of days across the world to the ones that can make a tangible impact. Focus energies on these, and delegate others to local chapters of the UN as ‘nice-to-haves.’ Tying up with brands to bring attention to the reduced days is a win-win – brands get their CSR and attention, and the world benefits. #NationalBurritoDay could benefit from a dose of #WorldObesityDay, no?
Ironically, World Marketing Day, 17 August, is when we will celebrate the triumph of marketers over people trying to make a real difference. UNESCO will probably take home a ‘Best Marketer’ award on that day.
Akhila Vijaykumar is a writer with experience across advertising and journalism. Occasionally, the crossover does make her demand truth from soap and try to cajole quotes into starbursts, but no harm no foul. She loves books by Terry Pratchett, dogs and pizza, often at the same time.