Have Emotive Charity Campaigns Numbed Society?


Persons are bombarded with an overwhelming amount of advertisements daily, with each source competing for attention and money. In the case of nonprofits, their very existence is dependent on donations and they must, therefore, go to great lengths to garner attention for their cause. This often results in advertising campaigns that use the audience's emotions to inspire action in the form of donations.

Have you encountered an advertisement like this?

What was your reaction?

Did you donate? Or did you move on because you didn't want to feel sad or guilty?

Although emotional adverts produce high donation rates, there is much controversy over the manipulation of the audience, depiction of the sufferer, and the long-term effectiveness of the method. These problems have contributed to a society which tunes out suffering to avoid being guilted into taking action.

Emotional Response.

This technique aims to manipulate the audience's internal emotions to establish personal responsibility and sympathy for those suffering. This makes the viewer a witness of suffering and it becomes their moral duty to take action on the sufferer's behalf. By eliciting guilt as an advertising technique, it becomes a contest between charities as to who can make the sufferer look the saddest or most desperate. It plays into the cycle that each advertisement must be more powerful and devastating than the last. In the short term, emotive ads may work, but in the long term, they are not sustainable.

The Sufferer.

As the sufferers are depicted with the aim to elicit an emotional response, they are often shown as helpless and are dehumanized as a result. This is an example of a 'negative appeal' campaign which largely contributes to the compassion fatigue amongst audiences. 

In 2012, a group called 'SAIH Norway' (students and academics international assistance fund) began their 'Africa for Norway' movement, which took a different approach to the way persons in Africa are presented.



They have 'spoofed' the way charities have demonstrated suffering and have created the 'Radi-Aid' awards to celebrate the best - and the worst - of development charity fundraising videos.

"The goal of the Radi-Aid Awards is to change the way fundraising campaigns communicate and engage people in issues of poverty and development."


Many charities have since shifted to 'positive appeal' campaigns in which they reject the representation of sufferers as helpless victims and focus on their agency and dignity. Though this technique has received positive responses, depicting the persons smiling may cause the audience to believe the problem is 'taken care of' and may ultimately lead to inaction. This has proven to be a difficult balance for many charities looking to depict persons more accurately.

The video below follows a 12-year-old girl from Malawi, talking about her hopes and dreams and what she could achieve by staying in school. While it elicits an emotional response from the sobering reality of her day-to-day life, it does not do so at her expense. It asks the audience to give her a chance so she can take it from here.


If the goal is to empower those in need, it is important that they feel empowered by the way they are talked about. The best approach is to tell a story by supporting from the outside, rather than stepping in to hijack or be the hero (unlike this video).



Evidence has suggested that emotive campaigns are still the most effective method to appeal for imperative action, which means they may be here to stay. The use of emotive campaigns must shift to be engaging and respectful, rather than distressing and manipulative.

The aim of this piece is not to condemn charities who use this technique, shame the viewer who donates or discredit the suffering that takes place in the world. It is to encourage individuals to reconsider the use of emotive appeals, the stereotypes they are reinforcing, and whether the representations are fair. Everyone should strive to be a conscious consumer of media, and critically evaluating emotive appeals is a step towards that.

Articlesnicole roach