Why Shock Isn’t an Effective Campaign Tactic


Yesterday morning, I fished out an anti-abortion campaign brochure from my mailbox. Usually, I toss mailings from solicitors straight into the recycling bin … but it was hard to do so this time. Not because I was beguiled by a clever tagline or a savvy infographic, but because the explicit images of lacerated fetuses was hard to ignore.

My stomach turned. I instantly regretted chasing my heaping bowl of oatmeal with two large cups of coffee earlier that morning. Granted, my visceral reaction may have been more vehement than most since I’ve yet to be desensitized to gore (case in point: I can’t watch shows like The Walking Dead – or even CSI, for heaven’s sake…). And yet, who wouldn’t have a strong reaction to unsolicited post-abortion carnage immediately after breakfast – or ever, for that matter?

Abortion has been one of the most ubiquitous and contentious moral debates for decades – so basic that it finds itself everywhere from political election campaigns to eighth grade mock debates to the family dinner table. The soliciting organization must have been aware of that, so they chose gruesome imagery to take the debate to the next level. After all, if you can’t charm people with wit or or compel them with compassion, you be as loud as you possibly can – and if that means resorting to disturbing propaganda, then so be it.

But where is the value in a campaign that seeks to shock people without giving them any warning, that’s potentially traumatizing to a child’s eyes, that’s triggering to those who’ve had an abortion and regretted it?

Dropping these brochures in people’s mailboxes is a sort of cause-oriented exhibitionism, publicly flashing us something nobody wants to see and then fleeing, leaving us with our heads still reeling. When I called the organization to express my concerns, there was no option to speak to a representative. My only choice was to listen to an impassioned five-minute audio recording trying to persuade me that abortion is wrong and then leave a message. Where is the space for dialogue?

My opinions about abortion are immaterial in this situation. I’m not here to rehash the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate. What does warrant a discussion is the way charitable organizations engage with the public – and how their approach can do more harm than good.


It’s Crippling, Not Empowering

I work for a non-profit that intervenes in human trafficking. Almost constantly, we’re faced with the challenge of how to wisely and strategically raise support for our cause without using the shock tactics that so many other non-profits use. Sensationalized images of beaten and branded bodies, chained hands, and sexy but sad-eyed women in cages have become the linchpin of the anti-trafficking movement, obscuring reality with whatever will grab people’s attention.

Many well-meaning anti-trafficking groups using these kinds of images don’t realize there is a cost to this style of communication. It strips the dignity of victims and turns them into a token. It perpetuates inaccurate information and creates a misinformed public. It feeds into the very same objectifying and voyeuristic behaviours we’re fighting against in the first place.

Showing pornified photos of trafficking victims does about as much good for the anti-trafficking movement as brochures with mutilated fetuses does for the anti-abortion cause. It’s self-defeating. Seeking to protect the dignity of the unborn by exhibiting photos that violate the dignity of the unborn creates a distracting dissonance that compromises an organization’s credibility.

Perhaps the most implosive aspect of using dark photos as a tool for awareness and protest is that it makes the viewer feel completely helpless. Whether it’s an enslaved 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.


It Encourages Reaction, Not Action

Without a doubt, the brochure had my attention. But the organization accomplished the opposite of what they intended. Instead of being drawn to read their case, I wanted nothing to do with something that sought to exploit my compassion. It made me react, but not act.

Shedding light on human rights issues is necessary, but there are better ways to go about it. You can’t fight violence by using violent images. You can’t claim you’re exposing an injustice while creating another. You can’t expect effective, meaningful change by turning people into pawns in an emotionally manipulative game.

Emotion on its own accomplishes little. You can’t depress people into action anymore. There have been points in history when it may have worked. In the 1980s, for example, hard-hitting photos of starving children in Africa did help garner funds for aid agencies. But as we’ve become more desensitized, these tactics are proving to be less effective.  A three-year UK-based study found that people are saying they’re “sedated with suffering” and that these kinds of images are “abusing their emotions”.  Another study shows that trying to appeal to people’s pity may actually have the opposite effect. It certainly does with me.

If all my non-profit did was force people to gawk at alarming pictures of women chained inside brothels, I’m sure we would elicit a strong emotional reaction from people. But after making those people upset, maybe even motivating them to give one-time donations out of outrage, then what? What do they do with their guilt and shame? How does a person meaningfully act when they are so overwhelmed by the problem?

Instead, my non-profit spends about 10% of the time talking about the problem of human trafficking and 90% of the time talking about solutions. We believe people are more likely to make long-term contributions and lifestyle changes if we foster a constructive, inclusive, positive environment free of condemnation. Rather than inducing shame, we seek to leverage action. Rather than broadcasting horror, we spread hope.

And the research backs this up. University of Cambridge psychology professor, Sander van der Linden, suggests a successful charitable campaign incites a positive affective response. Another study shows that focussing on positive messages may actually help to increase a donor’s long-term commitment to a cause. A cancer charity in the UK also found that donors who received positive appeal letters donated 45% more as compared to donors who received letters that emphasized the negative.

Shock encourages us to react. Hope invites us to act.


It Spreads Horror, Not Sustained Change

In August 2015, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge inspired more than 17 million people to film themselves while dumping icy water over their heads, raising millions of dollars in one-off donations for research and community services.

For those who participated, one might wonder how deeply impacted these brave, noble, self-sacrificing souls were at the time. One study shows an estimated 1 in 4 participants didn’t even mention ALS in their videos at all, and only 1 in 5 mentioned a donation. Does that mean the campaign wasn’t successful? Not if we’re judging it as a one-time event. But exactly two years after the launch, I have to ask: how many of these people are still engaged in ALS fundraising and research today?

An effective charitable campaign has the ability to translate and convert social momentum into sustained real-world contributions“, says Professor van der Linden. The key word here is sustained. Posting a video on Facebook or giving a one-time donation is unlikely to have a long-term positive impact on ALS research and service provision. Frightening people with disturbing images of mutilated fetuses is probably not the impetus people need to start shutting down abortion clinics.

Aside from the crudeness and disempowerment, the anti-abortion campaign’s one-pronged strategy of simply “exposing the injustice” is one of the biggest concerns. There is no Step 2. Now that we’ve been horrified, what are we supposed to do about it? What is their vision for how the public will behave in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years from now?

Exposing the injustice cannot be the ultimate goal. Effective campaigns urge people to commit to the long-haul and find tangible ways to help facilitate that process.

Scrolling through their Twitter feed, I was bemused by the triumphalized language the anti-abortion group  used, punctuating some of their Tweets with the hashtag #BootsOnTheGround – as if they were on a warpath instead of an awareness endeavour. Considering the way the anti-abortion volunteers were also taking to the streets with graphic placards, some speaking aggressively and yelling at bystanders, it seems that militance was their strategy across all platforms.

But activism doesn’t have to be a burden. We don’t have to martyr ourselves for the sake of a cause. We don’t need to make people feel bad in order to win support or make a case for justice.

I can tell you that in the six years I’ve been involved in full-time anti-trafficking work, my motivation doesn’t come from the pain I’ve seen in the faces of trafficking victims. It’s certainly a factor, but I’ve come to realize that anger isn’t a healthy source to draw energy from. Being militant about a cause is only going to lead me to burnout.

What motivates me is hope. It’s the joy of serving and being part of a community. It’s being empowered by knowing I can use my position to leverage people’s skills, passions, and resources to contribute to solutions, rather than encourage people to commiserate a problem.

How we do things matters.