We’ve all seen some pretty distasteful ads in the past few years. There was Pretzel Crisps’ unsavory use of pro-anorexia maxims like “you can never be too thin” and “tastes as good as skinny feels” in 2010. Or Reebok’s “cheat on your girlfriend, not on your workout” ad in 2012. And of course, Kendall Jenner’s infamous Pepsi ad, released in the wake of Black Lives Matter, which tactlessly suggested that the perfect ingredient to a successful human rights movement is a soda.
When you can’t charm people with storytelling or compel them with wit, you get loud—which assuredly attracts attention, but not always for the better. In their attempts to be “edgy,” all of these corporations sparked massive outrage, lost serious credibility and were criticized for reckless advertising and misusing their power.
For-profit companies aren’t the only ones guilty of using controversial marketing, though. A few weeks ago, I found a graphic brochure with images of lacerated fetuses in my mailbox from an anti-abortion group. While they were successful in getting my attention, my visceral reaction was less about abortion and more about disgust toward the agency. Clearly, they were unfamiliar with the art of not taking things too far.
The ultimate goal of any campaign is to inspire action, whether it’s to buy Pepsi or switch to Rogers or give to a charity. But in the case of the gruesome anti-abortion ad, the only action it motivated to engage in was to shred the brochure. After all, where’s the value in a campaign that shocks people without leaving room for nuance or dialogue, that could traumatize a child, that could be triggering to someone who had an abortion and regretted it?
If the public finds it irresponsible when major for-profit companies take controversial marketing too far, surely organizations that campaign and communicate about justice need to be sensitive, too. This, of course, is challenging in a highly offensive climate where people get furious over Starbucks cups not being “Christmasy” enough. Nonprofits can’t please everybody, but that doesn’t justify using disturbing propaganda to make people feel bad in order to win support or make a case for justice.
I’ve been in the nonprofit trenches for years, so it’s easy to criticize another cause for manipulating people’s emotions through shock tactics. And yet, my own industry—the anti-trafficking movement—is prone to doing the exact same thing.
From Awareness to Action
When I first stepped into the anti-trafficking arena over six years ago, most of the people I spoke to had no idea that slavery was still “a thing.” But now that human trafficking is the cause par excellence, highlighted in Netflix documentaries and Super Bowl commercials and by celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, most people seem aware—but few know what to do about it. And judging by the triumphalism-soaked language and explicit photos anti-trafficking organizations often use, that sense of helplessness is partly a result of flashy but erroneous marketing.
When you imagine what human trafficking looks like, what comes to mind? Perhaps beaten and branded bodies, bound hands, and beautiful, sad-eyed women from foreign countries chained inside brothels. Despite their distortion and half-truths, these glamorized images have become the linchpin of the anti-trafficking movement. Films about rescue operations are presented more like a horror movie than as the sobering chronicles of somebody’s reality. Delicate stories of victims are told over and over—sometimes embellished, sometimes without their consent, sometimes more for our entertainment than our education.
There is a cost to this style of communication. Not only does it misinform the public and strip the dignity of victims, but it feeds into the very same objectifying and voyeuristic behaviours we’re fighting against in the first place. Pornified photos of victims does as much good for the anti-trafficking movement as mutilated fetus imagery does for anti-abortion groups. Both try to fight violence by using violent images. Both seek to protect human dignity in the most undignified and inhumane way. Both expose one injustice but create another.
Dark and controversial charitable campaigns may capture people’s attention, but they do nothing to solve the problem. They don’t encourage us to look at the root issues. They don’t incite lifestyle changes. They don’t demand much more from us than giving a one-time donation out of guilt or sharing a hard-hitting photo on social media.
But that’s why this sensationalized narrative unconsciously serves us. When trafficking victims are portrayed as products of sensational circumstances, we can rest assured that it could never happen to us. When it’s only depicted as a problem overseas, we feel removed from the issue and don’t need to look into the brokenness in our own communities. When we only see images of sex trafficked victims, we are released from the responsibility of buying ethical goods that weren’t tainted by labor trafficking or exploitation.
We need to know about hard social issues, but it doesn’t work to depress people into action anymore. Effective campaigns don’t shock people into a state of helplessness. They mobilize people to act in meaningful ways.
From Horror to Hope
Whether it’s a victim of human trafficking or the bloody remains of an aborted fetus, grisly illustrations leave us feeling burdened by a problem that seems too big and that we’re too small to be able to help. There’s nothing empowering about fear and disgust.
I work for the Set Free Movement, a nonprofit that spends about 10 percent of our time talking about the scourge of human trafficking and 90 percent of our time talking about solutions. We believe people are more apt to make long-term contributions and meaningful lifestyle changes if we foster a constructive, inclusive environment free of condemnation and sensationalism. Rather than inducing shame, we seek to leverage action. Rather than broadcasting horror, we spread hope.
And the research backs this strategy up. Just as studies show that a negative or offensive ad by a for-profit company is likely to motivate people to boycott that company, nonprofits that try to appeal to people’s pity are likely to see the opposite effect. Research shows that a successful charitable campaign evokes a positive affective response. Focusing on positive messages may actually help to increase a donor’s long-term commitment to a cause, too.
But hope isn’t just an addendum, a nice way to punctuate an otherwise doomsday speech at a fundraiser gala or a rally. Especially for faith-based nonprofits, it should be our foundation. Hope is the point.
In my opinion, one of the best models of a social change movement goes back 2,000 years.
Jesus—the ultimate advocate of justice and compassion—didn’t recruit disciples or win hearts by trying to scare people into submission. He rebuked people for exalting themselves and being boisterous and instead asked us to be humble, meek and merciful. He wanted people to care about justice, but not in a way where they’re shamed into service. He didn’t preach horror and hell, he preached heaven and hope. And two millennia later, his 2.2 billion followers still cling to that message.
Shock only encourages us to react. Hope invites us to act.