What would happen if aid organizations and other philanthropists embraced the dark arts of marketing spin and psychological persuasion used on Madison Avenue? We'd save millions more lives.
In a 2009 column, Nicholas Kristof shares his personal frustration with the fact that many of his columns on huge societal problems have received scant response unless they focused on an individual and offered hope. He probed the research literature to better understand what kind of cause-related messages receive the best response and urged people working with causes to take those lessons to heart. Here are a few key excerpts:
Good people engaging in good causes sometimes feel too pure and sanctified to sink to something as manipulative as marketing, but the result has been that women have been raped when it could have been avoided and children have died of pneumonia unnecessarily—because those stories haven’t resonated with the public. So for God’s sake, let’s learn how we can connect people to important causes and galvanize a robust public reaction.
The recent research in social psychology offers a couple of central lessons. The first is a bit surprising: We intervene not because of stories of desperate circumstances but when we can be cheered up with positive stories of success and transformation.
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If one lesson is the need to emphasize hopefulness, the second is that storytelling needs to focus on an individual, not a group. A classic experiment involved asking people to donate to help hungry children in West Africa. One group was asked to help a seven-year-old girl named Rokia, in the country of Mali. A second was asked to donate to help millions of hungry children. A third was asked to help Rokia but was provided with statistical information that gave them a larger context for her hunger. Not surprisingly, people donated more than twice as much to help Rokia as to help millions of children. But it turned out that even providing background information on African hunger diminished empathy, so people were much less willing to help Rokia when she represented a broader problem. Donors didn’t want to help ease a crisis personified by a child; they just wanted to help one person—and to hell with the crisis.