Have the public had enough of manipulative charity marketing?


Jaded: charities need to stop relying on images that pull on heart strings. UNIFAM under a Creative Commons Licence

We’re all familiar with the adverts. You know the sad-eyed children, slowed-down pop ballads and sombre voice-overs informing us how nobody cares. Narratives carefully constructed by advertising agencies to make us feel wretched for not doing more to help. Stories of unimaginable suffering followed by a reassuringly-intoned directive that you – yes, you – can make it all better by reaching for your credit card. Save a life. Save this dog. Camera cut to wagging tail. Happy ending. Fade out. 

With so much uncertainty surrounding their funding, charities are feeling real pressure to secure donations but emotionally manipulative advertising strategies can cause more than just irritation. They risk saturating us with so much suffering that we end up tuning out completely. 

New research conducted jointly by the London School of Economics and Birkbeck finds that public perception of international aid agencies is becoming increasingly negative and that marketing overkill is part of the reason. The full report ‘Public knowledge, reactions and moral actions in response to humanitarian issues’ is published in September and will make for uncomfortable reading for many NGOs. While the research shows that charities consider themselves as trusted and valuable organizations, the public say they resent ‘excessively traumatic’ campaigns, complaining that ‘all they want is our money’.  

‘The public are tired of the continuous images of distress being dumped upon them,’ says Leigh Daynes, Executive director of Doctors of the World UK. ‘Charities need to stop presenting beneficiaries as hapless victims and make sure that people are engaged over the longer term.’ 

The research suggests that charities can also become victims of their own success as many now equate large organizations with faceless bureaucracy, greedy commercialism and a general lack of principles. ‘Branding,’ ‘benchmarking’ and ‘marketing budget’ are words most of us would prefer not to associate with a charity, even those which possess the commercial strength of a FTSE-listed company.

This could be why, although we remain generous in donating to one-off humanitarian causes such as earthquakes, many of us are unwilling to commit to ongoing support.

‘People are caring and still respond empathetically and sympathetically to distant suffering, but we’ve found a marked and widespread fatigue in response to humanitarian communications,’ says lead researcher Dr Bruna Seu.

As well as being jaded, people are often concerned that money is ending up in the wrong hands. We’ve all heard the stories of corruption, such as Panorama’s recent documentary ‘Where’s our aid money gone?’ from which we learnt of the purported bribes, kickbacks and document suppression linked to The Global Fund, the international aid financing organization that will receive over £1 billion (US$1.7 Billion) from British taxes by 2016. Then there was the Comic Relief scandal where it transpired that millions of pounds of donations had been invested in funds with shares in tobacco, alcohol and arms firms.

It’s not surprising the most recent survey conducted for the Charity Commission finds that people have serious concerns about both the way charities raise funds and how they spend their money.

It seems NGOs will have to work hard to re-earn public trust.

So how would the public prefer to be engaged? The research shows people want to hear facts so they can make their own decisions about where to donate. People naturally expect that they will feel sad when hearing about sad events but resent the continuous assailment by emotionally aggressive marketing.  Instead, they want to be seen as supporters rather than simply cash donors. They want to donate their time volunteering and attending events. They want more meaningful human communications.  

Charities must now focus on re-establishing these human relationships because their success depends upon partnerships based on a foundation of trust and reciprocal respect. 

‘Charities were formed by citizens seeking social justice and the highest regard for human rights and dignity,’ says Leigh Daynes. ‘This is one of the greatest lost narratives of our time.’

Natalie Nezhati is a freelance writer and English literature lecturer. She works with the Doctors of the World communications team in London.