A great many column inches of commentary has been written in the blogosphere about the importance of emotions for engaging audiences; communicators recognise that emotions are important triggers for engagement with social causes – although many organisations still publish lots of communications focusing on facts and figures.

There’s also been significant discussion for decades about the use of unedifying stereotypes and so-called ‘poverty porn’ – imagery and narratives which experience shows can trigger donations but which have been criticised for making people feel “uncomfortable, disconnected and guilty”, for disempowering people living in poverty and for undermining sustainable solutions. It is not the purpose of this blog to determine whether these communications undermine sustainable solutions or not; we can however, show how traditional ‘pity’ based marketing appeals make people feel and which emotions increase/decrease propensity to engage.

To test how marketing imagery and messaging impacts upon emotions, academics from University College London, University of Birmingham and University of Leeds, working with YouGov, ran a fundraising experimental test. Survey respondents were shown one of the two appeals below and then asked what emotions they felt and whether they wanted to donate some, all or none of the incentive they received for participating in the survey to a named charity.


The pity and empathy versions influenced emotions in very different ways

The Pity Appeal increases

  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Pity

The Pity Appeal decreases

  • Hope

The Empathy Appeal increases

  • Hope

The Empathy Appeal decreases

  • Feeling of repulsion

Emotions mediate engagement and attitudes


Making the choice to donate is a binary decision – you either donate or do not – but respondents also had to choose how much to donate.

The evidence shows that the empathy appeal makes respondents feel hopeful, which increases both the propensity to donate and the average amount donated.

There is another way to get respondents to donate, and that is via the emotions of anger and guilt. This is what the sector has long known – the use of pitiful images – often of desperate, starving, African children, brings in donations.

There are then, at least two ways of getting people to donate: by increasing their sense of hope through the use of empathetic appeals and by increasing their feelings of anger and guilt through the use of pity appeals.

However, it is important to note that the pity appeal decreases hope, reducing both the propensity to donate and the amount donated. This shows that there are trade-offs in using pitiful images – they can both motivate respondents to donate via some emotions, but also suppress donations via others.

Although the actual money raised was statistically similar for both appeals, I would suggest that the ideal appeal to generate more and larger donations would make people feel hopeful and angry.

Personal Efficacy

Belief that you can personally make a difference to reduce poverty is an important driver of engagement with global poverty – the more that people believe they can make a difference the more likely they are to engage.

The research also illustrates a second trade-off. Only hope, stimulated by the empathy appeal, increases audiences’ sense of personal efficacy. The pity appeal reduces hope, and consequently, personal efficacy. This suggests a least some unintended consequences of using pity based appeals – they can increase donations, but at the same time may be damaging to other forms of engagement.

Top Tips

  1. Make audiences feel hopeful and angry to get them to donate.
  2. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the bottom line is the only metric that matters – these appeals raised the same income but had very different emotional influences.
  3. Thinking about and testing the emotional responses to messaging may lead you to find greater brand consistency, stay truer to your values as an organisation or reaching new audiences who have been put off engagement with global poverty because of the ubiquity of pitiful imagery and messages.




About the author(s)

Will Tucker

Will is a communications and advocacy consultant. He leads partner and sector engagement with the Aid Attitudes Tracker in the UK and works on behaviour change, public attitudes and advocacy strategy and delivery with a range of charities and philanthropic clients.


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