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.

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