February 24, 2008

Social Movements and Your Attention Span

author_brad By Bradley Wright

There are countless social movements in society, and they want you to pay attention.

In a social movement, a group of ordinary people come together to advance a social cause, and there are countless movements in society. In the early twentieth century, women activists banded together to promote women's suffrage —the right to vote. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement promoted justice for African-Americans. The anti-nuclear movement protests the development of nuclear energy. Mothers against Drunk Drivers advocate tougher laws against drunk driving.

A common goal of most social movements, whatever their focus, is to get the public’s attention. Sociologists understand this via resource mobilization theory-- how being in the public’s eye helps movements accomplish their goals. It brings in workers for the cause, it helps collect money, and it might result in changed laws. In fact, more than a few social movements have as their explicit goal raising public awareness about their cause. For example, the National Children's Cancer Society (NCCS—a worthy cause if ever there was one) explicitly states the importance of raising public awareness. They write:clip_image002

“Take action against a disease that has been ignored for too long. Raising awareness in your community about childhood cancer and the survivorship issues surrounding it is critical to our mutual mission. Awareness can inform and change minds. It can change public policy and raise more funds for crucial patient services. Awareness of the programs of the N.C.C.S. can give hope to families facing the chaos of a diagnosis of childhood cancer.”

As a result, social movements work hard at having distinctive approaches. The movement for breast cancer awareness has the ubiquitous pink ribbons. Not to be outdone, other movements have adopted their own ribbon colors. For example, white ribbons are for lung cancer and violence against women. Yellow ribbons are for deployed soldiers and suicide awareness. Blue ribbons are for child abuse and Hurricane Katrina. Purple is for lupus and showing religious tolerance. Green is for environmental awareness and Lyme disease. Puzzle-piece ribbons are for autism. Ribbons with the words “publish me” are for untenured faculty--okay, I made up that last one.

(As an aside, some have criticized ribbons and wristbands as “slacktivism”—doing things that make us feel good about helping others without actually spending any of our time or money in doing so).

In addition to distributing ribbons, social movements do lots of other things. They can hold demonstrations. The million-man march in 1995 brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to Washington D.C. to promote unity and political participation among black men. They also get celebrity endorsements. For example, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) regularly features actors and actresses in their commercials, sometimes taking off their clothes (a time-honored method of getting attention). Sometimes they just advertise on television and in print, similar to a business seeking customers.

clip_image004There’s a problem, however—there is only so much public attention to go around, and there are a lot more movements wanting attention than there is attention to give. As such, movements compete with each other for the public’s attention. In this sense, groups like the National Children’s Cancer Society are fighting against not only the disease but also against other disease-related groups. If, for example, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation does a particularly good job of raising awareness, then there may be less to give the NCCS.

This puts social movements in a bind. On one hand, they are probably sympathetic to the causes behind their competing social movements. I suspect that members of the NCCS are also against juvenile diabetes. On the other hand, these other groups are their competitors, taking resources from them.

It’s in this context that we can understand the following commercial. Pandarescue.org is group dedicated to saving 

wild pandas and their habitat. It’s a small group—I’ve never heard of them before this commercial, and so I imagine that they struggled with how to get their message out. They came up with this commercial that explicitly recognizes the resource mobilization model described above. As implied in this commercial, the problem for panda bears is not just deforestation and poaching, but also the public support for whales. Yes, Greenpeace and others portray whales as beautiful, noble creatures, but this video shows the shocking truth! (My guess is that baby harp seals and cute little kittens are also harmful for pandas. Hopefully future commercials will get at that as well).


Well, what did you think? In a way, I appreciate its honesty because I imagine that a lot of social movements think that they are more important than other movements. Still, it is so, so tacky. It certainly does exemplify the social mobilization theory of social movements.


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I think I have to disagree a bit with this point, or at least its central premise that social movements are always competing with each other for attention. In some limiting sense, of course, there is a limit to how much information one person can gather, how many donations he or she can make, how many rallies to attend, etc. But isn't there something of a paradoxical observation that the more people tend to be involved, the more they get involved? We can observe this when we see block recruitment - social movements often recruit best when they recruit other groups to take up their issue as well. People who are already active are more, not less, likely to get involved with something new - right? It's been awhile since my Social Movements class...

So, in some sense movements are competing with each other for head space, but in another sense movements are united in a fight to create more of that kind of head space and to fight apathy. I'm reminded of some recently reported (in the mainstream press) findings on the effect of Starbucks on local coffee chains. The prediction is that a Starbucks opening next door to your non-chain coffee shop will be deadly. But, at least according to some news stories I've seen, the Starbucks have increased demand for gourmet coffee sufficiently, and, via advertising, brought in enough foot traffic, to more than make up for the customers who have switched from the local store to the Starbucks.

Long comment short: Participation is not a zero sum game.

I don't think I've seen this particular tactical choice before--does anyone know of other examples?

Hello Dan,

Thanks for the comment. I bet you're right that it's not strictly a zero-sum game, in that awareness of one movement might increase awareness of a similar movement. I wonder, though, if this happens within similar movements. Maybe it is a zero-sum game (or close to it) with dissimilar movements. So, to use your example, Starbucks may increase coffee consumption at local coffee shops, but it may eat into dollars spent at other restaurants/ leisure activities.

Just a thought.


Hello Carla,

I don't know of any other examples in which the zero-sum logic of this approach is spelled out as clearly as in this commercial. I've read various newspaper articles, however, that talk about how a disaster (e.g., Katrina) cuts down funding and giving to on-going non-profits (e.g., March of Dimes).


I have to agree that I think it is taking things a bit far to say that the central premise of a social movements are to compete with one another for attention. I feel that they have a cause that they are passionate about.Groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)for example, are passionate about preventing drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel. In some cases, the women who are members of this social movement have lost a child or loved on at the hands of a drunk driver. I think that as is the case with any social movement these women are trying to promote a cause that has personal meaning to them and in doing this of course they are going to gain public attention; but I feel that it is bogus to say that there central premise is to compete with other social movements. As is stated in the article members of one social group are probably sympathetic to the needs of other social groups. Ultimately, I feel that members of any social movement are united by one common purpose and that being to educate the public about their cause and ultimately change some aspect of society in order to better it. I think that perhaps there is a bit of competition for things such as funding or public support, but I feel that it is far from being the central premise.
The save the panda plug on you tube is strange to say the least, I agree with Alicia's comment here; perhaps the best thing to do in this instance would be to ban together not ot simply save one endangered species, but many. Sometimes I feel that social movement groups do share basically the same goals or ideologies and that they would be stronger and more efficient in portraying their message if they would ban together with another group that shares common goals or purposes.

I would have to say that I do agree that some goups do have to compete with one another for funding and awareness. I also think that the youtube video of the killer whales is taking it a little too far. While they do have to compete with one another for awareness they can do this in a way that gets their own point across rather than bashing the causes of the other groups. If the groups ban together then they can work together toward a common goal rather then just bashing the other goals.

I agree with Jen that social movements are not directly based on a goal of competing with each other for attention. Instead, social movements are based on a goal of achieving some social change regarding their group's cause. Achieving that change requires a social movement group (SMG) to spread its message, which is made possible by gaining the attention of those persons who are not members of that particular SMG. All SMGs must raise awareness of their cause to gain support in order to maintain the movement. Different SMGs, as illustrated by the panda and whale video, sometimes target the same audience creating the need for similar SMGs to compete with each other to obtain the resources offered by the members of that audience. Therefore, social movements are indirectly based on competition because the strength and survival of a movement depends on it. The more successful an SMG can be in competing against an opposing SMG, more resources that SMG can gain to achieve a change. The video released by Pandarescue.org highlights the cutthroat nature of competition, but it is an effective piece of propaganda. How many of those people who viewed the video still sympathize with the plight of the killer whales to the same degree after seeing the way the whales attacked the seals? I would guess that some people who had previously supported the "save the whales" movement and some potential supporters of the movement might now be looking for another endangered species to protect. Overall, I believe competition is the tool that will build or destroy a SMG, but it is not the direct goal of an SMG.

I agree and disagree to this argument. To an extent, I believe that social movements do compete with one another, but not all the time. Mostly, it depends on the category they are in. Social movements that are closely related to one another could compete with each other, but not ones that are not related at all. Yes, funding can be tight at times, but it’s solely up to the individual to choose what social movement they want to donate money to. It all comes down to individual preference.

I can understand the concept that the social movements are to a certain extent competing for attention as well as money. When the wrist bracelets came out a few years ago it began with the live strong bracelet and soon developed into more and more different groups until the bracelets had basically no purpose at all. They were sold in chain stores and instead of saying that there was a cause that you supported they said things like cool for children. As one comedian said I never bought the live strong bracelet because it didn't mix any of my outfits. The success of the Live Strong bracelet allowed for the other bracelets to be made and put out on the market, and to some extend the offspring of the original bracelet might have reduced how much money that group was trying to get. After all people only have so much money and they are only going to donate a limited amount of money.
It is this principle, I believe the save the pandas organization was going for however hypocritical the message actually was. And for that reason, although it does get people to notice the movement it might not be a message to get people to be involved so much as to donate.
At the same time I agree that some social movements would be stronger if they joined together because they do share goals and ideologies and through out history some have.

I would have to say that I agree and disagree to this point. On one hand I understand that movements want to get their points across and want to be on top, but I also do not believe in bashing another movement {in this case} to get the attention you need. Like the saying goes "You may have won cheating, but really you lost." In a sense these other movements are not coming together when in reality they all have the same cause: to get the public's attention and to help their movement. The video posted by pandarescue.org was disturbing. It did not give me the effect that it was supposed to and I would have to say that other people feel this way as well. Their intention was to get you to be against killer whales and not want to help save them, when all it did was make me think that the panda rescue organization committed a wrong action here. By bashing another "team" out of selfishness, you are embarrassing yourself. Movements need to come together and meet the needs and standards of each other. Praise other movements or organizations that raise the money they need, or that are successful at their commercials and advertisements. Do not retaliate and make the opponent look bad. A "winner" is someone who wins with respect. All movements should have respect for one another and come together as a whole. The world needs help and needs people to donate and giv e their time, but by fighting and competing we are just pushing the future away.

I have to agree with the consensus in the fact that the SMGs are primarily competing with each other for funding and public attention. Unfortunately, that is a consequence of their mission. Their mission, of course, is to help their cause and make a noticeable change in current policy. The pandarescue.org’s choice of advertisement material is on the grotesquely comical side; however, I would not change my support because of that. In fact, that may give the “save the whales” movement more ammunition to compete with pandarescue.org and start a feud between the two organization that inevitably causes the reverse of what they set out to do in the first place. I do not know if banning all movements that are similar together would be a wise decision either. Though similar, certain movements may be just dissimilar enough to cause problems to where nothing productive occurs. Regrettably, I do not see a quick solution to the issue. There would have to be another movement organization whose goal was to raise enough funding and public attention for all social movement groups, and I don’t think that’s happening.

P.S. the color wrist band for violence and abuse against women is purple and teal- I work at a family crisis center!

Sorry, my first sentence is unclear. I agree with the consensus about the SMG's primarily competing and how I don't feel that is the case.

I think the Save the Pandas video portrayed a perfect execution of top-notch marketing. It did exactly what it was trying to do: capture your attention. It was a kind of comical and even disturbing, but obviously the producers behind it know a little about our society. Aren't the movies on our top 10 list disproportionately comical and/or disturbing?

The fuel behind a SMG is money, voice and awareness. The only way to increase these is to increase the public's attention to the SMG. While one SMG might increase the attention for another closely related SMG, it is not significant. Most people will choose to be an advocate for or support the cause of a few SMGs it would almost be impossible to give one's full attention to all those which he/she values. Just because a person does not actively support or even pay attention to M.A.D.D. or March of Dimes or Breast Cancer Research does not mean he/she is opposed to or against the cause. It simply means a single person does not have the time, money or effort to support all that he/she may believe in.

I do not think trying to win the public's attention for your SMG is much different than the advertising, marketing and PR for companies such as Coca-Cola or Food Lion. What IS different is that after gaining the public’s attention Coca-Cola simply gains monetary profit and the SMGs gain life-changing, history-making advances.

I think it is interesting to see social movement groups competing with each other in such an extreme manner. The fact that groups with the same basic goals and principles attack each other is unfortunate. It does make sense that groups are competition--if there were only one SMG dealing with endangered species then supporters loyalty would not be divided. In our Social Change and Movement class we have discussed many different examples of SMGs, and have read about how some groups have benefitted from joining with similar groups. Often times the issues are not necessarily the same, but the important part is the common ideals, and the fact that they are fighting for what they believe in. SMG cannot maintain their momentum and effectiveness if they forget what they are about to the point where they would attack a group with the same principles. I understand the argument but I do not think it is justified. How much more effective would it be for similar groups to support each other, and to point out the reasons why Pandas are important, rather than why whales are not. That video did make me rethink supporting whales, but had nothing to do with Pandas. (Had the Panda come in and rescued the baby seals and saved the day I may feel differently!) Overall, I think if a SMG sticks to the beliefs they claim, they will be attractive to supporters and potential supporters, and can be one of their strongest advertising points.

First of all let me start by saying that I agree with many of the points made in the comments above.

It's sad if a SMG's main goal has to becomes the business side and competition of it all rather than the cause itself. Also I think that we've split up and become little sects of a group that could come together as one voice. With one strong voice rather than hundreds of small ones. I know it sounds very hippy-dippy, but if we could all just see the common ground and work for change together instead of fighting one another we could finally get somewhere.

I must say that I was appalled by the video of the killer whale...
For a moment there I thought I was watching the presidential race. I am sick to death of groups trying to get ahead by bashing the competiton by no other means than to show them at their worst. There are horrible aspects to everything or at least parts of people and groups...even animals that are not always warm and cuddly, but that's life. If someone was to choose a path to support only because there was nothing bad or disagreeable about it they would spend a lifetime trying to find it first of all and then die never having found it. Everything, big or small, has points or quirks that are not going to be liked by everyone at the same time but to air them out like dirty laundry to get ahead is even more dirty to me than to face the reality that nothing nor anyone is perfect. Very dirty tactics panda lovers...I'm disappointed!

In order for a social movement to be effective people have to be unified and when so many movements compete against one another it takes away from the efficiency of each. The panda rescue commercial was extreme, but it was innovative and if displayed would be able to capture lots of attention. The only problem I have with the video is that it is attacking killer whales for maintaining their survival and that the message of the video isn't seen until the end. The viewer should be inform at the beginning in order to make a informed decision. when you show footage of a killer whale in it's element and then say now do you want to save a whale, save a panda instead it makes the point of the movement becomes nonexistent.

What wonderful comments. Thank you for developing this issue all the more clearly.

Perhaps a useful distinction would be how much do movements compete with each other, and how much do they intentionally (or even knowingly) do so. The panda video is remarkable in that they are being very intentional. My guess would be that most non-profit movements see it as bad form to directly compete in that way. I would imagine, however, that at some level they are aware that some of their resources are up for grabs with other movements.

Many movement scholars suggest that social movement organizations must do outlandish tactics to attract media attention (Todd Gitlin, William Gamson, Pam Oliver). To get into the media's spotlight, activist wear "wild clothes," "sing funny songs" or "partake in violent demonstrations." In turn, this conditions of access makes it easy to label protesters as "deviants," "Simpletons" or "flakes." A good empirical study on this topic is done by Jackie Smith and others (2001).

Abstract:Abstract Social movements often seek to draw attention to issues they deem important by organizing public demonstrations with the aim of attracting mass media coverage. But only a small proportion of all public demonstrations receives any media attention. This article asks whether even the minimal coverage that demonstrations receive reveal any influence of social movements in shaping how issues are framed by the mass media. Analyzing newspaper and television news stories on Washington, D.C. protests held during 1982 and 1991, we ask whether news reports on protests are framed in ways consistent with the aims of protesters. Do demonstrators receive media coverage that highlights the issues about which they are concerned, or does coverage focus on the protest event itself, to the exclusion of the social issues that movements target?

Cite: Smith, Jackie.McCarthy, John D., McPhail, Clark, Augustyn, Boguslaw. 2001."From Protest to Agenda Building: Description Bias in Media Coverage of Protest Events in Washington, D.C."
Social Forces - 79, 4, 1397-1423.

One major characteristic of a social movement is a large number of people. Some of the greatest social movement groups include the American Revolutionists, abolition movement, and the suffragette movement. One reason why these social movement groups were so successful is because they had so many people involved. Today, SMGs like Greenpeace, MADD and the panda group do not bring about as much social change because of the small number of people interested. Whether or not they compete with each other or join forces, they probably won't gain drastic success unless there is a wide demand for social change. The American Revolution only happened after there was a strong demand for independence. The suffragette movement only happened after women across the country joined together for equal rights. People in America don't have a very high reason for saving panda's right now, so no matter how gruesome of a commercial they air, they are not going to be a very strong SMG.

In a social movement, a group of ordinary people come together to advance a social cause, and there are countless movements in society. A common goal of most social movements, whatever their focus, is to get the public’s attention. Sociologists understand this via resource mobilization theory. How being in the public’s eye helps movements accomplish their goals. It brings in workers for the cause, it helps collect money, and it might result in changed laws. In fact, more than a few social movements have as their explicit goal raising public awareness about their cause. Social movements work hard at having distinctive approaches.They can hold demonstrations, celebrity endorsements, and ribbons are some of the ways to help the movement.

A social movement can be a wonderful, powerful thing. When mnay people come together it can make more of an impact. Their is greatest in multitudes. One can get his point across in a more productive way where people will listen more closely because it is not just one persons point of view, it is a large group. I find it extremely productive.

A social movement is to raise awareness to something that needs more attention and funds. You buy stuff to help support a cause. I think that some things do need the money they get from these movements however i think some movements are just dumb. I think some people create this so they can get money in there pocket by supporting something that doesnt need much help or is not that serious.

people are lazy and there are several movements going around, i consider it pretty noble if a person chooses one and sticks with it.

A social movement is to raise awareness to something that needs more attention and funds. I think that some things do need the money they get from these movements, however I think some movements are just dumb.

people are busy and one person might want to save the ocean but get busy with life and froget untill somthing big happens

A social movement is when groups of people get together to raise awarness about a subject matter they feel strongly about. The resource mobilization theory is when organizations of groups of people use resources to persaude others toward their way of thinking. The video is a great example of that. The video demonstrates that the whales aren't as great is what they are made out to be by showing it preying off of seals. At the end of the video they ask the question 'Do you want to save the whales now?'. They are trying to say that the pandas deserve our support more than the whales.

A social movement is ordinary people coming together for a social cause. Resource mobilization theory puts how a lot more attention for social movements. This video looks like it is about competition to me.

A social movement is to raise awareness to something that needs more attention and funds but some things really do need money.

ok so organizations are almost a dime a dozen. I help when ever i can but i have noticed that the longer someone if with a movement the less willing they are to participate. so Im not sure if its environment making some movements more aggressive or pure laziness from the people. If someone actually fights for the same movement for awhile my hats off to them.

Social movements dependency on people helping is a handicap. If a person has been taking up for a specific movement for long,they might eventually get bored. So is it that some social movements get more attention or because more people are active?

Organizations all have different reasons for existing.The argument makes good points but i also believe its not the whole story. We have been doing these blogs for the year and honestly i love it. This particular one hits home. I am a member of North Talladega County Relay For Life so I know first hand how hard it can be to get people involved in social organizations. However if someone is unfortunate enough to get cancer normally that family becomes extrememly involved. I believe this is shameful because it took something like that for people to get involved.

There are so many social movements. It can be hard to find the right social movement for yourself. Most people chose a movement that has affected them or their family or a close friend I would think. I believe it is a good idea to get involved in a cause.

Social movement is when people come together for a social cause. The resource mobilization theory applies to the social movement because if they are seen then it cause awareness to the social movement. The video shows such awareness.

I believe social movements are more of a fad thats why their hard to stick to.

People get together and try to advance a social cause, or make some kind of social change. It happens every day, some causes or changes more important and necessary than others. Resource mobilization theory applies to social movements because these social movements need to be in the public eye to get attention and to create the change or getting the support they are wanting. As far as advertising goes, you see people bash their competitors every day, and I myself am pretty tired of seeing it. If your cause is worth while, then you should be able to get the attention you need and possibly deserve without having to harm someone else's efforts.

If every person in the United States would pick a movement and stick with it, the lesser known movements would have just as much publicity as those who are better known. There would be no want for any of the movements to get publicity, they would all have at least one person pledging to be in their movement.

A social movement is where a group of people come together with a common goal in mind. The resource mobilization theory refers to how organizations of groups of people will gather their resources and try to persuade people into their way of thinking. In my opinion, the video was a comical way to try to take people's attention off acheiving a goal in one area and try to achieve a goal in another.

Today social movements drive many people to do the things they do. There area also far too many of these movements that make little to no sense at all.

Today these social movements drive many people to do the things they do. I think that there are far too many of these movements that make little to no sense at all.

Social movement is people coming together to advance a cause. They're focus is to get peoples attention. Resource mobilization theory plays a part in social movements because they show how attention can help the movement.

If a person chooses to support, defend and fund a social cause then do it wholeheartedly, but do not expect everyone you meet to take up the same cause. It can become fanatical at some point and turn people off. We must let others choose based on their desire to support the cause.

social movements are very important. they can achieve great things for a great cause. there are several out there but it shouldn't matter how many or which one you are a part of. people join each for a different reason

I agree that Social Movements consistantly compete for everyone's attention at the same time,and it is inevitable that some movements are going to be forgotten due to other movements broadcasting better. It is sad that this happens, but it does. Some movements, such as Breast Cancer with the pink ribbon, well, they aren't really giving a fair portion to the cause.During October, pink ribbons are everywhere you look, and products are advertising the pink ribbon as well. The products, if you look them up online, are usually donating only a small fraction of a percent to the cause, so you are better off directly donating to the cause, rather than buying a product with the advertised ribbon. It is sad that so many companies display the pink ribbon on their products when close to money at all goes back to the cause group.

I think that its crazy that social movements are fighting for attention. But I think that all social movements should have attention. But
thats only if you believe in what they are talking about. Like the Mothers Against Drunk Driving only pay attention to it if you
believe what they are talking about. Most people who are in certain social movements have lost someone due to that. They do compete a lot
but theres always someone out there who believes in just one.

Every movement has its place in the heart of some group of people, probably depending on something that happen to a close friend or family memeber, brings causes home for many, yes they use certain techniques, but all are valid.

I agree. What you said makes sense and I totally agree.

I think it's sad that organizations have to fight with each other to get the message for their cause out. I really think it's possible for people to give the same amount of attention to different organizations. To say that one organizations cause (such as fighting cancer) is more important than trying to save an endangered species (like pandas) is wrong because both are equally important.

I think the problem is not only trying to change human behavior, we are also trying to alter animal behavior and instincts. It was a very nice video that showes the suvival rule in the animal kingdom or human.

Honestly in my opinion I don't think that we need to interfere with the natural way that things are going to happen. Because that is obviously how God has intended them to be. God intended for the dinosaurs to go extinct, and if pandas are going to also, then they will. that's just how its supposed to be. And the same with all other animal movements.
Whereas trying to help breast cancer is a good cause. Animals don't even have souls, so once they die, they are done, but humans have alot more to them, and deserve to be helped alot more than whales or pandas.

Thanks for the sharing a blog that base on the people movement against education level.
Really an awaking blog.
Peoples Movement of India

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