Jonathan Lewis: Mournful Charity Ads Miss the Mark
Usually I turn my head, avert my eyes, turn off the sound. Sometimes, I fast forward (thank you, TIVO).
I hate watching creepy television ads from the worthiest of charities. You know the ones:
Mournful music plays. A pitiful photo of a starving or abused or deformed — and always helpless — innocent appears. A voiceover asks if I care, grabbing at my humanity. An earnest celebrity or someone else who I think I am supposed to recognize tells me that for just a few pennies a day, I can make a difference (inversely implying that, if I don’t donate, I am a worthless piece of shit).
Between the Viagra commercial and the ad for reverse mortgages, in my own living room I am psychologically manipulated to feel as if I just avoided eye contact with a street beggar. While the ad dolefully intones about the anguish of other living things, my heart hurts or hardens.
I hate the unexpected confrontation with suffering. I hate knowing that, however much I do, it is not enough. What I really hate are the wrenching pictures.
Recently during The Rachel Maddow Show, two unfortunately juxtaposed commercials gave me the choice to save the lives of suffering boys and girls in the developing world (translation: place of poverty) or abused dogs and cats in the United States (translation: place of plenty).
In one ad actress Alyssa Milano, a well-respected UNICEF Ambassador, stared right at me with plaintive eyes, held up two quarters and said that for 50 cents a day I could save a child’s life. The second ad also featured plaintive eyes. However, the American SPCA films caged animals, not kids or actresses. For 60 cents a day, I get a free photo of “the animal I am helping” and a nifty gift T-shirt.
Disclaimer: I am not anti-animal. Indeed, I am the happy slave to a 175-pound English Mastiff. (In case you are wondering, she doesn’t speak much English.) I am also pro-child. I am the happy father of a terrific son. (He does speak English.) My civic commitment is poverty alleviation in developing countries.
The author with his son and dog Cleopatra (all in deep thought)
Presumably, these ads work. They do good by raising money for good causes. I am heartened that people respond to poignant appeals. It would be awful if they didn’t.
But what kind of civilization allows a child’s survival to hang on the unpredictable giving habits of TV-watching Americans?
Isn’t it kinda crummy that TV ads have to dumb down (cover up?) the real causes behind cruelty to animals, let alone our fellow human beings?
Can we be empathetic without feeling guilty? Let’s get mad about life’s unfairness because it is wrong, not because an ad agency made us feel wrong.