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The Effectiveness of Social Campaigns in the Polish Context


The International Effie Awards are awarded every year to the best ideas for consumer engagement in fifty categories ranging from “breakfast foods” to “integrated market communication.” The Grand Effie Award, the most prestigious of those awarded, is given to the single most effective marketing campaign of the year in various countries throughout the world. And last year, for the first time in its history, this award was given to a social campaign in Poland, recognizing that such campaigns are effective mechanisms not only for addressing the nation’s deep-seated social ills, but also for achieving tangible results. 

Yet caution must be taken in overstating the role of social campaigns in relieving Poland’s social ills. Poland's struggle to overcome its tumultuous history, to determine its new identity and to effectively navigate its new experiment with democracy has made the development of a strong civil society that fully respects human rights a difficult process. And social campaigns can hardly be expected to improve the situation of human rights in Poland alone.

Nevertheless, social campaigns still play an increasingly important role in the fight for minority and human rights in Poland today, as evidenced not in the least by the aforementioned Grand Effie Award. Indeed, many observers emphasize the importance of social campaigns in strengthening the nation's growing civil society.  Others are even optimistic enough to believe that social campaigns will inevitably lead to structural and policy changes that will help to permanently improve the situation in the long-run.  Such thinking is clearly evidenced by the constant growth in number and variety of social campaigns in Poland throughout the transition and post-transition periods. Last year (2006) marked the largest number of campaigns undertaken in any single year in Poland, and the number is only growing, with estimates as high as forty campaigns expected in each of the next few years. 

As a result, it is incredibly important to investigate Poland’s social campaigns to determine what they demonstrate about Polish society, and whether or not they are really effective. The increasing rise in number and popularity of such campaigns suggests that at minimum they are causing disturbances in the day-to-day fabric of public discourse and Polish life. But a comprehensive investigation into the nature of social campaigns, their development and the obstacles they encounter in the Polish context will not only help us to gauge their effectiveness, but may also help shed light on the broader forces at work concerning the situation of Poland’s democracy, civil society and human rights.

Civil Society

Before understanding the effectiveness of social campaigns, the context within which they function must be explored, particularly through the lens of Poland’s civil society. According to Magda Gumkowska of the Klon Jawor Association, Poland’s civil society encompasses the “space outside the family, national authorities or the zone regulated by market mechanisms where people gather voluntarily to act for common good;” and, she says, a strong civil society increases the level of receptivity to social campaigns.  In other words, if a campaign is to ignite public discourse, the mechanism to carry the flame of that discourse must be well-developed. But many observers believe that though Poland’s civil society is learning and developing, it is still very weak and functioning with poor structures and a dearth of resources, largely because of Poland’s past.

During the period of Polish Communism, society at large was unable to participate in activities connected with civil society out of respect for an egalitarian ideology that frowned upon those that “stood out in the crowd.”  And this mentality has largely carried over into contemporary Polish society, particularly amongst the older generations who were deeply shaped by the Communist experience. Many in the older generations are still suspicious of civic activity, believing that “minding one’s own business” and not becoming involved is better for long-run personal security.

As a direct result, Poland lacks a strong tradition of civil and public debate. Though Poles have significant experience organizing against the state and its institutions (the most notable being the Solidarity movement, which some view as the beginning of Poland’s civil society), they were never able to cooperate with the state. Instead, many parts of Poland’s civil society still see as their roles “to rise up” against the state when the circumstances warrant such action, rather than to work incrementally with the state to create gradual but constant change.  And even when they do engage in such forms of civic action, most actors remain internally focused, developing individual activities instead of cooperating with other actors, retarding the development of a vibrant civil society.

Further contributing to the weakness of Poland’s civil society is its lack of resources. Though Poland’s economy has continued to improve during the post-transition period, particularly since EU accession, the overall economic situation in the country remains weak as unemployment rates are still high and the level of trust in Polish institutions remains low.

Fortunately for Poland’s experiment with democracy, however, the younger generations exhibit significant shifts away from the Communist and even the transition-period mentalities. For young professionals, being an active participant in civic life is important for their careers as it provides an opportunity for networking and professional advancement. And those Poles that are involved in civic work appear to be very devoted to their activities.  Furthermore, some NGOs are beginning to cooperate on tackling social issues and others are also looking to cooperate in the international arena. And finally, the media in Poland is increasingly beginning to cooperate with civic actors as well; the winner of the Effie Award, for example, cooperated with two of Poland’s largest newspapers to conduct a campaign aimed at free speech in Belarus by blotting out significant sections of their articles on the same day. 

It appears therefore that though Poland’s civil society is still in its developmental stages, the prospects for its future appear bright. And this is important from the perspective of social campaigns; as mentioned above, the effectiveness of any social campaign improves when mechanisms in society exist that allow individuals and groups not only to respond, but to act. And the growth of this latter component of civil society, which allows and compels outside individuals to engage, seems to be the most important trend in Poland today. NGOs such as Integracja intentionally aim to include in their social campaigns various outlets for information (such as websites and seminars) as well as opportunities for action. And other organizations, such as the Center for Citizenship Education, are strictly involved in the growing movement to include civic education in the curriculum of public schools throughout the country. Such actions can only foretell a stronger and more vibrant civil society, one more ready to create and react to various social campaigns.

Development of the Social Campaign:

In thinking of the effectiveness of the Polish social campaign itself, however, the first thing that comes to mind is ultimately the development of the campaign. In order for any social campaign to be truly effective, organizers must determine their ultimate goals, whether to affect the public discourse, change public opinion or go so far as to change public policies. Research of past campaigns and of current realities is therefore a necessity; a failure to analyze the pulse of society, namely its traditions and values (as will be explored later), ultimately means that any social campaign will fail to understand the most effective ways to achieve their stated goals.

For example, PFRON, the National Fund for Rehabilitation of the Disabled, ran a 2006 campaign called “Disabled – Fully Able to Work,” which proved successful by increasing the number of disabled people working on the open market (rather than in sheltered workshops or not at all). In that year alone, over 5,000 disabled employees were newly employed in the open market, increases that PFRON partially, if not largely, attributes to their campaign’s influence on public opinion.  Over a year of planning went into the making of the campaign with conscious efforts to ground it in the public psyche, particularly of employers. For example, research was conducted into the best times to broadcast the campaigns for employers rather than guessing or choosing times at random. 

Furthermore, for many social campaigns, particularly those aimed at a national audience, cooperating with advertising agencies is very important. The organizers, however, must necessarily take an active role in the process. As Integracja, the largest organization working on issues surrounding disabled persons in Poland, repeatedly pointed out, advertising agencies often overlook important details concerning the Polish context in creating social campaigns. Instead, they fly by the seat of their pants and can often make egregious misjudgments concerning the reaction of Polish society to already contentious or touchy issues. And this again reinforces the need for adequate analysis of the target groups and problems at hand, as well as for constant oversight by the organizers in keeping the advertising agencies informed and in-check.

But arguably more important for the creation of Polish social campaigns are the implications of the country’s weak civil society. First and foremost, there exists in Polish society a deep-seated “culture of mistrust,” also rooted in the experience of Communism. Poles are deeply skeptical of institutions; and this skepticism naturally carries over into the realm of social campaigns. For example, the same PFRON campaign mentioned above hired a professional actor to play the disabled person featured in its national television spots, largely because they could not find a disabled actor willing to play the role. What resulted were accusations against the organization for being hypocritical and falsely supporting the disabled in Poland. Such “accidents” can potentially deepen the feeling of mistrust towards the relatively new idea of social campaigning, and can result in the general labeling of social campaigns as providing inaccurate information if the organizers are not more intentional in their planning.

Furthermore, most Polish NGOs involved in designing social campaigns fail to do extensive research (if any at all) after the campaigns are completed. But this is not necessarily from an unwillingness to carry out such research. Instead, the general lack of resources in Polish society makes funding such expensive studies difficult, and the organizers must often rely on analyzing the visibility of the campaigns or public reactions via e-mail and media statements.

Finally, because of both the culture of mistrust and the still infant civil society, Poland’s NGOs and various campaign organizers do not seem to be establishing partnerships and working together towards common goals. Antek Adamowicz, the director of the Foundation for Freedom, for example, found that any cooperation with other organizations became “only about name recognition,” rather than substantive collaboration.   According to the Social Communication Foundation, however, such a circumstance is not necessarily and wholly negative; though disinformation and over saturation may occur, a variety of societal perspectives can be beneficial for a better understanding of the issue addressed. However, cooperation can still play a significant role in increasing the effectiveness of a social campaign. But because organizers of campaigns have their own perspectives on which they are unwilling to compromise, such cooperation is difficult to find. And only with a stronger, more vibrant civil society will such cooperation manifest.


But even after such considerations, social campaigns must still be set into motion within Polish society. And it is here that they will inevitably encounter a set of complex, interrelated factors influencing their effectiveness in the Polish context. Namely, the effectiveness of social campaigns, as mentioned before, works on two levels. On the one hand, social campaigns attempt to influence discourse in the public sphere, shaping and guiding it based on the intentions of the organizers and the interactions of the campaigns with society. On the other hand, some campaigns seek actual structural changes, namely of the attitudes and opinions of individuals, groups and/or segments of society, or of policies dealing with the issue at hand. Furthermore, different campaigns encounter different obstacles that directly influence their effectiveness; no two social campaigns are necessarily affected by all of the same obstacles in Polish society.

But such circumstances do not prevent us from discerning a few generalizations about social campaigns and their interactions with Polish society. As has been highlighted, Poland’s recent past plays a significant role in shaping the current Polish context. According to Adamowicz, “Polish society is not yet a democratic society;” and people are still learning the meaning of individual freedom in the public sphere.  Poles are still discovering the balance between having their own beliefs and being able to express them publicly, a process largely hindered by Communist-era acceptance of the status quo.

But according to many observers, the situation is improving. Though social campaigns may not be so readily accepted, they seem to be successful in challenging long-held notions of how public discourse itself is shaped. For example, Malgorzata Polak, the program director for Integracja, described their 2003 campaign “Are We Really That Different?” as having “broken open” something in people’s minds. This is not to say that the campaign changed anyone’s attitudes, but it introduced a new concept of disabled persons as normal Poles and normal people into the public sphere. And most of the observers interviewed throughout seem to agree that it is such incremental but consistent contributions by social campaigns that make them most effective in overcoming Poland’s complicated and tumultuous past. 

Furthermore, the economic conditions in the country directly dictate, as mentioned before, the level to which Poles react in favor of social campaigns. In Poland there seems to exist a hierarchy of needs rooted in the Communist mentality. Poles often struggle to see the benefits of civic engagement when they themselves are struggling to provide for their own well-being, particularly during periods of slower, or even negative, economic growth. For a Pole in such a situation, reactions to social campaigns are likely to be softer. But others would claim that regardless of mentality, Poles encounter the issues addressed in social campaigns everyday. As the organizers of ”Let them see us,” a campaign aimed at fighting homophobia, pointed out, people often think they don’t know or like any homosexuals, when in reality they do not necessarily even know who is and who is not homosexual. 

But some characteristics of Polish society have distinct impacts on only certain types of campaigns. The most important example here concerns deeply held Polish values, largely shaped by history, tradition and religion. Many organizers of social campaigns spoke to the sensitivities of Poles to their identity and values, and of how effective campaigns are those careful not to overlook such values. Indeed, however, the clash of such traditional values with the social campaigns seem to primarily come into play regarding those social campaigns aimed at sexual minorities, and in some cases but to a lesser extent, women.


Overall, social campaigns can be effective mechanisms in the fight for human rights and strengthening democracy. At minimum, many of the organizers believed that when issues concerning human rights are made visible in Polish society, citizens become aware of the ideas at hand.  It seems, therefore, that social campaigns are primarily effective in influencing public discourse; that is, infusing the public sphere with the ideas behind the social campaigns, with no mention of how the public reacts to those ideas.

Many organizers simultaneously considered social campaigns to be almost exponentially more effective if combined with opportunities to mobilize society, such as informational and educational opportunities, or opportunities to act. In this way, social campaigns would take the extra step in capturing public reaction and channeling it into productive changes in the fabric of civil society. And though such thinking runs counter to the aforementioned realities concerning the state of Poland’s civil society, such opportunities are beginning to arise.

Ultimately, it could be said that social campaigns are indeed effective, particularly within a narrow definition. But the situation of social campaigns demonstrates that Poland’s future looks bright. As can be seen, Poland’s democracy and civil society are definitely strengthening; social campaigns are increasingly able to take advantage of post-transition freedoms and resources, and are increasingly seen as effective. Elements of Polish civil society are beginning to adopt new planning strategies, learning from past mistakes and from the Polish context itself of how to better implement its ideas. And finally, many believe that social campaigns will lead to significant long-term changes in both policies and in societal attitudes. Therefore, it appears that social campaigns will unquestionably continue contributing to Poland’s fight for human rights as they creatively engage the nation’s difficult but important issues in public life.




Works cited:

Effie Awards: Awarding Ideas that Work. (http://www.effie.org/). June 29, 2007.

Maison, Dominika and Piotr Wasilewski. Propaganda dobrych serc- czyli rzecz o reklamie 

społecznej/Propaganda of kind hearts- about social advertising. (Kraków, Agencja Wasilewski, 2002).

“Polish newspapers black out front pages to protest Belarus.” USA Today. November 24, 2005. 

(http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2005-11-24-poland-belarus_x.htm). June 27, 2007.

Social Communication Foundation and Association for the Forum of NGO's Initiatives. “Reklama Społeczna/ Social advertising.”

Szymborski, Filip,. “Public Awareness Campaigns: Moving Out of Propaganda’s Shadow.” The Warsaw 

Voice online. May 14, 2000. (http://www.warsawvoice.pl/archiwum.phtml/1317/). June 29, 2007.


Adamowicz, Antek. Interview. Chairman of the Foundation for Freedom and designer of the “Tiszert for 

Freedom” campaign. (June 26, 2006).

Breguła, Karolina. Interview. Photographer for the “Let them see us” campaign. (June 29, 2007).

Brzezińska, Agnieska. Interview. External Relations Coordinator for the Center for Citizenship Education.  (June 27, 2007 ).

Daniszewska-Bocian, Beata. Interview. Project Coordinator of the National Fund for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled’s (PFRON) campaign “Disabled – fully able to work campaign.” June 26, 2007.

Gumkowska, Marta. Interview. Coordinator of the research on NGOs program for the Klon/Jawor 

Association. (June 29, 2007).

Polak, Malgorzata. Interview. Program Director of Friends of Integration Association (Integracja). (June 27, 2007).

Prochenko, Pawel and Irek Stankiewicz. Interview. Chairman and team members of the Social 

Communication Foundation. (June 28, 2007).

Szczepłek, Agata. Interview. Program Coordinator of Friends of Integration Association (Integracja). (June 27, 2007).



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