Rare Disease Battles – Why Subliminal Activism Matters

Raising Awareness…Activism…Advocacy…

Those are just some of the words we use to demand action from anyone whether it be world leaders, industries, friends or family. Every day we engage in some sort of activism or advocacy at large or in our personal lives. Usually, the ones who engage in any type of advocacy will naturally be the type of person who actively goes out of their way to extend a helping hand.

However, if you’re the type to avert your eyes when you see someone with Muscular Dystrophy, Cerebral Palsy, Scleroderma, or any number of other physically debilitating illnesses, then I want you, NO….. I NEED you to keep on reading. It is important that we all collectively raise our heads out of the sand and see what’s happening around us.


I want to refer you to a world renowned photographer by the name of Edward Burtynsky, he specializes in photographing what’s called “Industrial Landscapes”. As the name implies, these photographs are pictures of what would have been beautiful scenic landscapes, except these are of landscapes altered by different industries (coal, oil, paper, etc). One of the first quotes I ever read on the subject of activism was Mr. Burtynsky’s quote regarding what a friend of his, speaking on his photography work, referred to as Subliminal Activism.

Now of course, Subliminal Activism isn’t defined as anything, but it begs the question, should it be? Indulge me for a moment while I set up the tee here.

Let’s start by defining both words separately:

Subliminal: perceived by or affecting someone’s mind without their being aware of it

Activism: the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.

By definition, both words are polar opposites, where one is defined as vigorous action (which in turn is very obvious) and the other as unperceivable persuasion. On their merits alone, both are very strong tools people use to ensure that action on an issue is achieved but what happens when you put them together? Well just take a look at Mr. Burtynsky’s work and answer and you tell me. 

Now, if you’re still reading then I have successfully stopped you from averting your eyes to this. I’m hoping now I’ll be able to persuade you to help me a little more… How on earth can we put subliminal activism to work on behalf of the rare disease community?

After seeing his work, I thought about how I could do something similar. Well, the rare disease community relies heavily on two things (please feel free to tell me if I’m missing some):

  • social media platforms
  • local and global advocacy organizations

Now what have we learned about advocacy organizations? Two words… SIZE… MATTERS… but only about raising awareness, not necessarily about bringing about REAL change quickly.

The larger the organization the more cumbersome they become and you would think the opposite would be true. The same goes for a small outfit, nothing is likely to get done quickly. So despite all the good work they do to further the rare disease community’s messages, it still takes a long time for anything tangible to take place.

Social media platforms are amazing tools for spreading the word on an issue, garner large followings and create excitement about an issue. But for the 1 million followers you may harness typing away on your laptop, you’re an outlier if you get over 10% engagement, even more so if you’re talking about rallies or actual physical mobilization.

This is where subliminal activism comes into play. Media Media Media… that’s the name of the game. We’re talking about videos, photographs and articles. The best way to get your message out in a way that isn’t pushing it down anyone’s throat but almost guaranteeing your message to be received is by subtly telling your story in an obvious way.

For Example:

no words… either in the image or coming out of me. But yet, this is the reality of our hyperconnected world would you agree? This is an example of subliminal activism. Without saying anything, this image is making a very loud statement of our current iPhone culture.

What examples can you come up with? Want us to give you our own examples of how we would implement subliminal activism to the benefit of the rare disease community? let us know in the comments section below or shoot us a message on facebook or twitter.


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