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Exploiting the Faces of Need

A recent study, published in the Journal of Marketing Research, finds that children’s charities would receive greater donations if they depicted sad-looking children in their appeals.

Their working theory was that people ‘catch’ one another’s emotions…something that’s been shown again and again in many other studies… but which had never been applied to charitable appeals.

They tested their thesis in a series of experiments, including a behavioral test where they showed subjects randomly-selected charitable appeals and gave them money to give.

In the other tests researchers tried to zero in on the emotional state of the test subjects.

The paper, called ‘The Face of Need,’ was authored by Professor Debora Small of The Wharton School and Nicole Verrochi, a PhD candidate, who openly wonder why charities don’t use sad faces of children more often.

I’ve got a few answers.
  1. It’s potentially exploitive. For years some charities have been willing to say, in effect, ‘donate or this child will die.’ It may be true, but it’s still emotional blackmail. Pictures of sad children will deliver that message without having to say it.
  2. The pictures of children in heart-wrenching situation might quickly lead to donor-fatigue. I’ve got pictures of my youngest when she was in the hospital on her third birthday and desperately ill with pneumonia. While it was quite an ordeal at the time, she’s better now. Still, I can’t bring myself to look at those hospital pictures. Imagine, then, getting nothing but sad pictures of children from every children’s charity that solicits you.
  3. It could lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ of bad taste. It’s not hard to find children in really miserable states and snap a photo. My daughter, for instance, was miserable in one of the best children’s hospitals in the United States. But if a goodly number of children’s charities decide to apply the Wharton findings, we’ll almost certainly see children in ever more desperate situations. It will become a kind of sad-kid porn.
Disagree? Agree? Feel free to weigh in.

Tip of the hat to Jeff A. for suggesting the National Lampoon cover art.


Anonymous said…
I agree that people "catch one another's emotions," but I also agree that an overload of sad kid photos leads to desensitization of the audience. I'd be far more inclined to donate to a children's charity if it showed a charity volunteer doing something positive with a child, making the child laugh, smile, or even just gaze adoringly at the volunteer. Instead of drowning me in tears, inspire me with hope!
Donald said…
Interesting text. You have a nice blog. Keep it up!

I share the same views. Liked your blog very much.
Hi Anonymous and Donald:

There is a way to show sad faces in an appeal without being exploitive, but it's probably best suited for video format. Here's how:

Depict sick, sad or children in desperate situations in a before and after segments.

I'll use the example of my daughter. In a video I would show what it was like when she was so ill with pneumonia, with tubes coming out of everywhere and a heartbreaking look of pain on her face. The narrative would talk about how sick she was.

Then, the video would show her as she is today: healthy, beautiful, and full of life thanks to the professional doctors and nurses at the children's hospital.

Such a video would certainly show her with a sad face. But it would also demonstrate that a marvelous transformation had taken place.

Thanks for your comments.

Warm regards,
Craig said…
Hi Paul,

thanks for highlighting the study. Hadn't come across it before.

I think the anonymous comment misses the point - what people say and what they do are completely different things.

If you surveyed people I'm fairly confident that most people would say they prefer to see smiling faces (I know I would), but when confronted with the reality of actually giving they'll give to the sad photo.

You may also be interested in this recent study that reports on the use of sex in fundraising and that men give more to attractive women!

It raises many of the issues you mention.

Agree with your before/after scenario - I think that is very successful in fundraising and is something the Smile Train have done with great effect.


Hi Craig:

Fun study from the U.K. thanks for sharing it.

I've already got a title for the name of the seminar I'll lead: "Sexing Up Your Donor Appeals."

One thing I didn't address in my post is how the Wharton research might apply to cause marketing. It's clear to me that that only a select few corporate sponsors would want to appear in ads that featured only sad-looking kids.

I'm not saying you couldn't find sponsors who would do associate their brand with pix of sad kids. But does seem clear to me that such sponsors would be the exception to the rule.

Thanks for your comments.

Warm regards,
Cindy said…
When charities use images of starving, malnourished children in ads, I tend to turn away - it's hard to face the truth long enough to hear the message so I agree with Anonymous, but I also agree with Paul and think that a combination of hopeful (happy) and truthful (sad) images can be compelling and keep me long enough to learn how to take action -
Hi Cindy:

You raise an interest question that the Wharton researchers didn't really address:

Would a proliferation of charitable appeals featuring pix of sad children put off so many people that it would more than offset the additional donations generated by people who were extra-moved by said pictures?

The idea could be easily tested by direct mail fundraisers and their digital cousins using A-B tests.

Thanks for your comments.

Warm regards,

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