Guilt Appeals in Nonprofit Marketing: How to Do It Right

They called it “The Ad.” You know the one. This famously sad ASPCA commercial, which set shots of abused animals to the tune of Sarah McLachlan crooning “in the arms of the angel, fly away,” is still a nonprofit marketing legend over a decade since it aired. Not even the coldest of hearts could be immune to those sad puppy eyes, and the metrics proved it. According to The New York Times, ASPCA, which had an annual budget of $50 million at the time, raised roughly $30 million in response to the ad. So what was it about that commercial that had people reaching for their wallets?

Guilt certainly had a hand in the matter. ASPCA’s call to action was a call to responsibility. As McLachlan sat with a golden retriever panting in her lap, she spoke directly to the camera: “This is your chance to say, ‘I won’t sit by while an animal suffers.’”

Even if you can’t book a famous singer to provide a heartbreaking soundtrack for your marketing campaign, there are proven ways you can employ the same tactics to get your audience moving. One study found test subjects responded to guilt with generosity, but only under certain conditions.1 Guilt doesn’t work alone. It’s not enough just to make your audience feel bad. The study found that the effect of guilt on subjects’ choice to give was fully mediated by a sense of responsibility. From this, we can extrapolate a two-step process: Introduce a feeling of guilt, and then show your audience that they are responsible to act on it. Your donors will be even more likely to feel responsible if there are others who will witness to their generosity. A donor will act for the sake of conscience, sure, but do-gooders still like to be seen doing good.

A second study, which specifically focused on donors responding to opportunities for “reputation formation,” corroborates this claim.2 One of the researchers’ tests compared the actions of two groups that were each given the opportunity to act generously. To examine the effects of a subliminally perceived audience, one group of participants used computers with two stylized eye-like shapes hidden in the desktop background. The control group was given a normal desktop display. The difference between the groups’ results was astounding. Those given computers with eyes hidden in the background gave money at almost twice the rate as the control group. This unveils another layer of the ASPCA commercial’s genius. From the close-up videos of animals to McLachlan’s direct address, the ad featured nothing but faces for the entirety of its runtime.

If we only give because we want to relieve our consciences or impress our peers, however, that paints a pretty sad picture of humanity. Luckily, a third study examined not just the effect an audience had on a donor, but also looked at the behavior of the audience itself.3 What the researchers saw, they dubbed “the social contagion of generosity”: those who received or observed help given by a stranger were more likely to help others themselves. As much as humans are prone to seeking approval and praise, we’re also motivated when we feel admiration or gratitude toward someone else. There’s something innate about the “pass it on” mindset in our psychology. And that should give us hope.

Using guilt appeals to reel in donors is more complex than just making your audience feel bad (which, arguably, brings up some ethical concerns as well). It’s about showing your donors where they fit into the grand scheme of things: How can they help you in your mission to change the world for the better? What difference does their action make? And, conversely, what bad results come of inaction? Make the tangible effects of the donations your receive a public conversation. When a prospective donor witnesses a selfless act or when a donor sees their generosity is appreciated, everyone benefits.

Building community and connection is a powerful tool. ASPCA did that in 2007 with a TV commercial that got everybody talking, but today the options are almost infinitely greater. Don’t miss out on the benefits of marketing in the age of #trending. Maximize ways that you can call attention to your donors’ generosity on social media. Encourage donors to connect with their friends and talk about their good deed. Guilt is a tried and true way to make sure your marketing campaign packs a punch, but it’s not the only tool at your disposal. Share stories. Start conversations. Because nothing compels us as humans like a motive we can share.

  1. Basil, Debra & Ridgway, Nancy & Basil, Michael. “The Mediating Effect of Responsibility.” Psychology and Marketing 12, 1035-1054. (2006).
  2. Haley, Kevin J. and Daniel M.T. Fessler. “Nobody’s watching? Subtle cues affect generosity in an anonymous economic game.” Evolution and Human Behavior 26 (2005): 245 – 256.
  3. Tsvetkova, Milena and Michael W. Macy. “The Social Contagion of Generosity.” (2014). PLOS ONE.

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