Development with dignity, campaigns with creativity

A Case Against the Use of Poverty Porn in Charity Appeals

About the author

Christina Berry-Moorcroft prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment, studying with PR Academy.

Photo by Bill Wegener on Unsplash
Photo by Bill Wegener on Unsplash
Christina Berry-Moorcroft

Take a moment to picture the last campaign your organisation launched. Are you recalling an emaciated child with flies around them? A bare-chested woman carrying water? A grief-stricken man looking poignantly out from a hut? If you are then you have been exposed to poverty porn. Perhaps you even created it. But what is poverty porn, how has it shaped our understanding of life in the Global South and should we be revolutionising the communications we put out to counter it?

Poverty porn has been defined as any type of media which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy to increase support for a cause. The most pervasive instance of this is Western portrayals of Africa. For many of us, the images and tales that we have consumed paint a very one dimensional and desperate story. In ‘How to Write About Africa’ Binyavanga Wainaina uses satire to expose the condescending way that many in the West speak about Africa, noting especially the trend to present it as one homogenous place populated by naked warriors, corrupt politicians and starving children, who don’t speak unless it is of their suffering.

Who’s Shaping the Narratives and Why?

When we look for the architects of these stories, we often find that they are communications professionals in the charity sector. People like me. For decades our television sets and magazines have been full of charity appeals in which Africa is portrayed as a continent of victims and nothing more. Everyone working in international development knows that not to be true, so why then do we rely on these tactics? According to Diana George, an academic studying the documentation of poverty: charities and NGOs have found it difficult to convince Western audiences that extreme poverty exists. She writes that showing utter despair may seem like the only solution. It’s a solution that does have evidence to suggest it works, that these images do shock people in to giving. And that, undoubtedly, does alleviate some problems in the short term.

What is behind why these types of appeal work? Several public relations academics suggest that we go back as far as Ancient Greek philosophy for the answer. Aristotle deduced that successful communications rely on rhetorical appeals, one being the emotional state of the audience, or the pathos. In his research, Ronald Smith explores the implications of this for public relations today, describing how successfully manipulating the emotional state of the audience can rely on positive appeals such as love, virtue and humour, or negative appeals based on fear and guilt. With poverty porn communications a peripheral route of persuasion is used, building upon the audience’s already established negative emotions about poverty, hunger and sickness to make them feel guilty about others’ suffering. However, people feeling guilty is not enough, that guilt needs to be a catalyst for action and for that to happen the message must be accompanied by a response to the source of that guilt, a response efficacy. People want to know there is something they can do quickly to feel better, so fundraising appeals in which we lay out a simple monetary exchange, for example “donate £5 and provide a child with clean water”, are used.

For many, given the success of these appeals, the ends justify the means. But does it? The answer from a lot of African commentators and from a growing number of people internationally, is no. I agree.

The Impact of the Stories We Tell

The ethical implications of these communications methods are threefold: it perpetuates stereotypes; it empowers the wrong people; and it misrepresents poverty. All of which make problems harder to fix in the long-term. Africa is the second largest continent on earth, made up of 54 sovereign states and populated by over 1.2 billion people. Not all of these people are poor and yet this perception exists. It exists, in part, because of the stories we tell. Poverty does exist in Africa, but so does wealth, innovation, industry, arts and resource. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer, explains that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” We have allowed, and sometimes encouraged, an incomplete picture to become the one that a lot of people believe to be true.

This single-story method is incredibly successful at centring and empowering the wrong people, those who have the least direct experience of the issues at hand. It tells donors that because of their position in society and the resources available to them that they can be saviours in communities they may know nothing about. Importantly, it also disempowers the “recipient” in the situation. It objectifies them, defining them by their suffering and inadvertently telling them that they are less than the people being called upon to help them.

Too often excluded from these narratives are community members themselves who are creating change: the policy makers, local activists, or people working at a grass roots level such as doctors, nurses and teachers.

In ‘The Pyramid of Corporate Social Responsibility’, Archie B. Carrol instructs organisations of their ethical responsibility to do what is right, just and fair, and to avoid harm. A method of communication in which we misrepresent, exclude and disempower people cannot be fair and is not avoiding harm.

Because we need quick actions from people, poverty porn attempts to package hugely complex issues as easily understood, consumed and fixed with simple interventions. By showing poverty as merely suffering resulting from a lack of resource we ignore the structural factors that have contributed to the situation. We give the impression that suffering is inevitable or easily fixed by a one-off donation. Neither is true. Poverty is the result of both individual and systemic problems, involving the social and justice systems in place that either work to empower people or entrench their position. Successfully addressing poverty means admitting our own ignorance in understanding the true nature of poverty, not delivering these oversimplifications to wider audiences. Creating poverty porn, especially when it is the main or only method of communication used, is clearly in contradiction to the universally agreed set of principles aimed at promoting ethical conduct in public relations. Led by the Global Alliance and supported by the CIPR, these principles call for honest, true and fact-based communication, and respect and fairness when dealing with publics.

Public Perception and Fatigue

Despite these serious ethical complaints, for the most part the general public don’t question the ethics of what they’re seeing. Though, there are flash points, semi regularly, in which these tactics become fleetingly unpalatable to wider audiences, usually when an appeal is critiqued by a highprofile commentator. An example of such is when in a film for BBC Daily Politics David Lammy MP heavily criticised campaigns for having “tattooed images of poverty in Africa on to people’s minds.”

In a way not divided from the critique of centring the wrong people, these crises moments often happen when a Western celebrity is part of the story, as witnessed in the backlash over fundraising videos from both Stacey Dooley and Ed Sheeran in recent years. As a result of these public scandals and the potential reputational risk, some organisations do change their communications or reduce the graphic nature of some elements. However, these crisis moments, rarely cause lasting change that many critics believe is significant enough.

An element of public perception perhaps more likely to drive change, in an environment where fundraising is increasingly difficult, is how much these tactics really work anymore. Do they create return supporters or is there a limit to how much people even pay attention anymore? Jen Shang, chair of philanthropy psychology at Plymouth Business School says that whilst there is evidence of guilt working, there is also growing evidence that extreme negative emotion or consistent negative
messaging can make people go into a state of withdrawal. Increasingly we are seeing this with the rise of ‘compassion fatigue’, the idea that people are oversaturated with guilt and fear-based appeals, making them more familiar with and less shocked by the suffering they witness. Ask yourself if the last campaign you saw affected you as deeply and compelled you to act as much as the first one (or first ten) you saw did. The answer is likely no, perhaps you even switched the channel or closed the browser. There is only so long any of us want to be made to feel bad for and only so many times we can see the same issues without wondering if anything has or will ever

In contrast to this Bambos Neophytou, co-author of The Guilt Trip, says that positive messages, whilst thought to have less instant impact, are more effective at creating perception and behaviour change. A study conducted as part of Aids Attitude Tracker found that a campaign which featured a photograph of a child being fed and a ‘thank you’ in the copy was more likely to inspire a focus group to donate than one with a photograph of a malnourished child in distress. The group shown the positive appeal also scored the highest on the measure of believing that they could make a difference to poverty through their donation. Rewarding people, with a good news story, actively combats compassion fatigue and creates a sense of efficacy around aid and charity.

The Way Forward

But simply including occasional success stories is not enough to combat the damage that has been done by the excessive use of poverty porn, we have more to do to fix our mistakes.

We need to move to communications that portray people with dignity and respect, but also as people with existences full of things that aren’t just misery and desperation.

We should be working with stakeholders to have them tell their stories, Jennifer Lentfer, Director of Communications at Thousand Currents explains how they have moved from creating content to producing it. This approach not only empowers people, but it will make for richer and more authentic storytelling.

We also need to be clear about what poverty is, what causes it and how it is solved. For too long we have allowed the idea that it is a one-dimensional problem, with an easy fix, to be believed and our publics deserve better. We can and should trust them with the nuance of the situation and invite them to learn more alongside us. Part of this is respecting our audiences enough to not exaggerate the impact of their action, £5 will not fix everything and we all know that, but it is part of
a wider ecosystem of interventions that can be just as inspiring. This is a key tenet of deemphasising the role of our own organisations in development, the work we do is only possible because of partnerships and our communications should be transparent about that.

The good news is that this is not hard to do, in fact, doing so may allow us to be more creative and original as communicators. The Golden Radiator Awards, part of the annual awareness raising campaign run by Radi-Aid, has a list of metrics by which charities can measure if they are producing communications that meet this challenge. Previous winners show that it is possible to appeal to shared humanity and pull some emotional levers with humour and hope. It is possible to have a donator feel part of the solution without implying they have saved the world during an ad break. Most importantly, it is possible to talk about poverty and not put a person’s misery under the microscope.

It’s time we step away from tired tropes and overused narratives and remember that our job is not just to tell stories compelling enough to raise funds, but to inform and empower people so that everyone, everywhere, can be a part of long-term change.