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Don't Use Exploitive Images in Charitable Appeals, Real World Results Suggest

A study, published in the December 2009 Journal of Marketing Research, found that children’s charities would receive greater donations if they depicted sad-looking children in their appeals. But real-world results show that the research may not be valid, especially for animals.

“The working theory,” I wrote in a June 2009 post, “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 exploitative. 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.”
Small and Verrochi tested their experiments in a laboratory setting using students, which is standard in academic research.

But a real world test using at the Austin Human Society in Texas took exactly the opposite approach and enjoyed great success. Instead of depicting animals in grim circumstances, as had been done in prior campaigns, the Humane Society’s advertising agency Door Number 3, headed by my friend M.P. Mueller, took a happier approach. One showed an adorable mixed-breed dog with tennis ball in its mouth, featured the headline, “I’m not on Twitter. But I’ll still follow you.”

Let me repeat myself for emphasis. The Austin Human Society had taken a 'sad-pet' approach in the past. But the 'happy-pet' approach taken by Door Number 3 was demonstrably more effective.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that “by the end of last year, the Austin Humane Society reported a 13-percent rise in contributions, not including bequests and other planned gifts, and it has maintained the gains this year, says Amanda Ryan-Smith, director of development. The charity’s most recent year-end appeal based on the ad campaign’s approach generated $100,000, double the amount it raised in 2009.”

How to explain the difference between the real-world results and the laboratory tests?

It could be that the results for children don't carry over to pets. It could be that happy-face campaigns are more effective after sad-face campaigns have already been tried. It could be that laboratory research doesn't translate into the real-world very well. It could even be that the creative used in the laboratory tests wasn't very good.

I think it's because people prefer not to see exploitative images with their charitable appeals, whether human or animal.

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