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Worthy causes adrift in sea of needless awareness
By Doug Young

This week’s Street View takes us to the offices of one of Shanghai’s hottest Internet companies, though take-out delivery superstar Ele.me probably would have preferred to avoid the spotlight on this year’s global Consumer Rights Day, which fell on March 15. But anyone who missed that story, which saw Ele.me blasted for using unlicensed restaurants, needn’t worry about accidentally missing this particular day designed to draw attention to a specific cause.

That’s because I’ve recently become aware of Shanghai’s fondness for commemorating many of the growing number of global days designed to draw attention to just about any cause imaginable. While there’s certainly no harm in using such events to raise awareness of things like environmental protection, it does seem like Shanghai’s growing obsession with these promotional days is getting slightly out of hand and may need to become a little more selective.

The need for this kind of artificial observance certainly isn’t limited to China, and the US holds similar events and campaigns for things like AIDS and breast cancer awareness. But those kinds of health issues are one thing, and are often designed to raise both money and awareness for such causes.

By comparison, it’s hard to see the purpose behind many of the growing number of other commemorative days that Shanghai likes to observe for things like city and kidney awareness. The observation of so many days also runs the very real risk of numbing the public to all such campaigns, similar to the boy who cried wolf one too many times and ended up being ignored.

Consumer Rights Day has become a fixture on China’s calendar over the last few years, and is actually quite a useful device for raising people’s awareness that they actually have rights when buying products and services. That’s because most Chinese didn’t enjoy such rights in the pre-reform era, and people simply had to accept whatever products and services were offered regardless of quality problems or other deficiencies.

CCTV has become a leader in the campaign to raise awareness of consumer rights, thanks in no small part to its annual investigative show that spotlights various corporate abuses that take advantage of unsuspecting consumers. That show has snared both domestic and international giants in previous years, including names like Apple, Volkswagen and China Mobile, all of whom were caught and criticized for lapses in their product quality or customer service.

This year Ele.me was the centerpiece of CCTV’s annual show, coming under fire for using unlicensed restaurants in its vast network of business partners.

The news wasn’t exactly shocking, since Ele.me and rivals run by names like Baidu and Meituan all do business with thousands of restaurants, delivering food to consumers from the largest chains and tiny eateries. Anyone here in Shanghai is well aware of that fact, since it’s hard not to notice the hundreds of food delivery bicycles that now clutter our streets.

This kind of show built around a global event like Consumer Rights Day is certainly worthy of praise, but I’m less certain about many of the other global observances. Just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, I made an effort to note instances of commemorative days mentioned in the media and in other promotional materials during the last two weeks.

My gut feeling was quickly borne out, and during that time I saw reports or other mentions involving World Rare Diseases Day (February 29), World Kidney Day (March 12), World Sleep Day (March 18) and the Consumer Rights Day mentioned above. I also saw promotional materials for World Cities Day, which doesn’t come until October 31.

All of that brings us back to the current situation, and what to make of this recent flood of observations, including this past week’s Consumer Rights and Sleep Day.

If I were advising our local media and city government, I would suggest we become a bit more selective and try to limit observation of such days to perhaps one or two at the most per month, and create some slick and focused campaigns to raise awareness. Otherwise, Shanghai could end up looking like one big advertisement for anyone with a cause to promote.

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