Should charities use positive or negative empathy appeal in marketing?


Use of empathy is a common language style in marketing by charities. Is there a certain style of emotional communication in media messages that is more likely to appeal to donors’ sympathy and empathy than others? Does the use of happy or sad images and videos work better?

Marketing in the non-profit sector

Non-profit marketers almost always looking for ways to market its services/support with a goal to fund raise. While there is not much difference between for-profit marketing and non-profit marketing in terms of objectives to achieve such as brand recognition, increased sales (donations) etc.; charities have a very limited budget for marketing as they try to be as lean as possible in using maximum funds (donor’s contributions) to the direct cause need itself and they lack both time and human resources to develop and implement an efficient strategic marketing communication plan. With more than 170,000 in Canada [1], there is an increasing competitive environment for fundraising. This makes it even more important for charities to be able to convey the apt message and market wisely (cost-effectively). With the increase in the digital transformation, there is a greater need and scope in understanding human behavior thus understanding how to connect better with the modern customers (donors) and also identify the best way to reach the new market- baby boomers and millennials generation.

Use of emotional appeal in marketing

Charities along with insurance and banking firms are the most common examples for using emotional appeal in marketing. The use of sympathy and empathy is a key tool in conveying their message and persuading people to support different causes. Empathy creates an understanding of another person’s circumstances and issues and sympathy creates a feeling of pity or sorrow seeing another person’s misfortunes. Together they create an air of sad or negative emotional connection with the audience. Creating an emotional appeal through empathy and also a form of guilt could result both in a positive or a negative reaction by the viewer. Research shows that high level of such emotions may lead to the opposite of the expected desired behavior. [2] Another type of emotional appeal used by charities is to inspire hope and encouragement thus creating an environment of positive feeling of change makers and a positive relationship with the charity.

Debated Argument — Which is the right Emotional Appeal to be used?

Both techniques act as a human-centered emotional connector for the charity with the target audience (donors) by triggering an emotional reaction that acts as a motivator to react by supporting the charity (through donations, volunteering or sharing about the cause). They both communicate the same story to the audience, but the tone or language of messaging changes how the charity connects or attracts the audience. However, it has been long debated- which is the best way to market (best way to make people give more generously). In this report we study the history, experience, advantages and limitations of each of the emotional marketing appeals with charity examples.

Using a Positive Emotional Appeal

Over the years the array of marketing communication mediums have changed and the different ways charities fundraise have also increased. Charities are able to help donors empathize by experiencing or walking-in-the-shoes of the beneficiaries through events such as the increasing number of marathons in every city, golf tournaments etc. Study shows that the millennial generation prefers to support a cause not just through monetary donations but through being involved and experiencing a feeling of pride in creating impact. This acts as a motivator for donors to believe that yes, they too can make a difference and thus inspiring them to join the others in creating change because they have the power to do so. A child’s smile wearing her new school uniform, an athlete’s expression completing a race, a mother’s tears of happiness seeing their child- a sickness survivor etc. are the common faces we see in charity marketing messages.


Around 1950s, Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott discovered that our first emotional action in life is to respond to our mother’s smile with a smile of our own. [3] Obviously, happiness are hard-wired into all of us. Winnicott’s discovery of a baby’s “social smile” also tells us that joy increases when it is shared. Academic theories and findings show that use of positive empathy (a happy face) might encourage donations because the donors can see the result of their generosity or because donors want to maintain that image and the joyful mood they see in it. According to the study by Dyck & Coldewin in 1992, [4] a positive picture of a child leads to a higher average gift donation than a negative one. New research conducted jointly by the London School of Economics and Birkbeck [5] in 2014 finds that public perception of international aid agencies is becoming increasingly negative and that marketing overkill is part of the reason. The research shows that the public say they resent ‘excessively traumatic’ campaigns, complaining that ‘all they want is our money’.


Over time empathy marketing has evolved to provide hope and inspiration as the key takeaway in the communication while still being able to convey the cause and the social need through storytelling.

· Happy donors: Donors want to be inspired to donate not guilt-driven to donate. The positive empathy makes them feel good about themselves, acknowledging work done by humanity.

· Adds value to the charity: It also indirectly shows show successful or effective the charity has been in using the donor-given-funds to create impact. It helps share information about number of lives helped or benefited through their works and show the end result through the happy/positive environment they have created as a success story.

· Long term results: Study shows that sharing a positive impact message with donors helps create long lasting donor relations [6]. “The public are tired of the continuous images of distress being dumped upon them,” says Leigh Daynes, Executive director of Doctors of the world. “Charities need to stop presenting beneficiaries as hapless victims and make sure that people are engaged over the longer term.”

· A larger audience: While the negative empathy marketing is not appreciated by everyone, a positive connector is not easily offensive or disliked by many. It helps the charity convey a good message to a larger target audience thus reaching out to a larger prospective donor-base.


· A positive (happy) marketing message may not always trigger or move the audience to do something for the cause. A feeling of happiness or content can be soon over-ridden and forgotten. It does not create a clear call-to-action marketing result that pushes the audience to donate.

· A celebration of successful impact created does not convey that help is needed. Often donors believe that if a charity has enough money to advertise such a message, they clearly are not in need of money for the cause. Thus charities need to be cautious of not over-using this strength.

Charity Examples

· The Sick Kids foundation in 2014 launched its brand campaign ‘Better Tomorrows’ with the help of JWT Canada [7]. It invited audiences to come face-to-face with patient’s unheard stories. The campaign included 42 30second TV and YouTube videos for 42 days of November & December.

Old campaign

It featured sick children between the ages 4 days to 18 year olds in their daily struggle stories with sad background music. While it was one of the biggest marketing campaigns by charities and was successful in 2014, they could not sustain this for a long period. This year they changed their marketing strategy and plan to a positive empathy appeal using its new campaign ‘Fight the fund’ [8] with a much higher expected reach to support their new goals of re-building the hospital. “In some ways, we continue with the intention of bringing a strong, emotional resonance to the work by telling patient stories,” Davison-VP, brand strategy and communications at SickKids Foundation says. “It’s a different tone but it’s still highly emotive and what we’ve added into the mix now is a feeling of empowerment and a way of telling these stories that makes people want to get up out of their seats and help.”.

New campaign

Other research — Using a Negative Emotional Appeal

Having said the above, many researchers have the contrary belief that the use of sadness in empathy marketing makes a difference and generates (greater) funds. We’re all familiar with these advertisements and posters. We all know the sad-eyed children, slowed-down pop ballads and somber voice-overs informing us about the desperate need in the world. Narratives are carefully constructed by advertising agencies to make us feel wretched with guilt for our comfort and not helping yet, thus pushing us to do something about it.


According to the emotion-as-feedback theory [2] in 2007, a charity appeal that elicits happy emotions may create the perception that no action is needed while a sad face suggests that help is immediately required. In 2005, study shows how sad face created greater impact on donations [9]. Additionally a new study in 2009 by Deborah Small, Marketing professor at Wharton School of Business [10] finds that photos of needy potential clients work best to stimulate giving when they depict people with sad facial expressions. Because facial expressions elicit vicarious emotions — a phenomenon Small calls emotional contagion. “Catching” others’ feelings by responding to their facial expressions happens automatically and unconsciously. In the case of a charity photo, then, a sad face leads observers to feel the pain of the person depicted. That, in turn, stimulates sympathy — and thus, donations to the organization that promise to help such an individual. Small tested the effectiveness of photos depicting children with happy, sad, or neutral emotional expressions on advertising for an organization supporting children’s cancer research. Nearly 78 percent of participants who saw the sad face on solicitation fliers after a session donated some of their show-up fees to the organization. In contrast, only about 53 percent of those who saw the happy and neutral faces did.


· With the rise of international relief and development organizations after the world wars, there was a need to convey a message of a need in a certain country or location (usually developing or under-developed nations) to donors and supporters in another location (usually the developed nations in North America and Europe). Due to the difference in lifestyle and quality of living, it was necessary to be able to use media (photographs, stories, videos) to show the donors what the suffering or issue was (which could otherwise not be conveyed or seen)– this was best done using sad tragic media messages to move people.

· The sad empathy connection makes you want to do something to stop or change it. Unlike positive emotional appeal marketing, this achieves a higher level of sympathy. Appendix 4.


· Saturation: With so much uncertainty surrounding their funding, charities are feeling real pressure to secure donations but emotionally manipulative advertising strategies can cause more than just irritation. They risk saturating us with so much suffering that we end up tuning out completely and too sad media can create a feeling of helplessness by donors.

· Short term: Study shows that such sad emotional triggers do not work on warm audience beyond a point. So cannot be used as a long term campaign message [3].

· Limited access: People do not like to see sad images on OOH- posters and billboards or in every TV commercial break. People flip channels or avoid looking at such images to avoid the emotions involved. Many cities do not allow charities to post depressing image media messages in public places as it gives a bad vibe of the city or location to tourists and visitors.


While there are some drawbacks of using positive empathy messages as stated earlier in this report, there is a large scope for overcoming those limitations. Many charities thus use a hybrid of both positive (happy images) and negative (sad images) in their marketing communications. Charities and research have shown how to best use a combination of both based on some external parameters. A) Time frame & goal: Charities should use negative images to show urgent need in short time-frame (such as natural disasters, war etc.) as it acts as an urgent donation need trigger. But to use positive story-telling — impact created and lives changed (happiness) as it works better for brand awareness and long time-frame campaigns. B) Matching: A disconnection between the message conveyed by charities through different mediums from the type of images used (happy or sad) disrupts the flow of the empathy created for the audience. The effectiveness of an image, happy or sad, is enhanced when it complements the message.


While different organizations choose to use a different empathy connector style, it is for certain that many organizations are shifting their marketing communications approach to use a positive emotional appeal to maximize their ROI. According to the Global Social Good Summit 2015 in New York [12], the key take-away focused on how data is power and technology growth has enabled charities to use data to show the impact and reach out to a much larger audience more effectively and that storytelling is essential. The art of story-telling has become the hot-topic and one of the most popular courses taken up by the social sector in North America. Both for-profit and charity brands re-emphasize this by using positive empathy in their messages such as — empowerment of women, patriotic pride, the power to be yourself and to accept the challenge of making a difference as it resonates with a larger audience and shows long term “brand recognition” results. Since the idea is to create human-centered marketing, the use of people (the organization staff, volunteers and beneficiaries themselves) making the difference acts as a link of connection and creates a relationship with every audience.


1. Hall et al. (2004). National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations

2. Baumeister, R.F., Vohs,K.D. DeWall (2007). How emotion shapes behavior: Feedback, anticipation, and reflection. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(2), 167–203.

3. Courtney Seiter (2014). The Science of Emotion in Marketing

4. Dyck, E.J. & Coldevin, G. (1992). Using positive vs. negative photographs for Third-World fund raising. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 69(3), 572–579

5. Jena Pudelek (2014). Public opinion toward international aid agencies. Civil Society UK.

6. Natalie Nezhati (2014) Have the public had enough of manipulative charity marketing? New Internationalist Blog

7. J. Walter Thompson Canada (2014). SickKids Foundation- Better Tomorrows Campaign

8. Fight the fund (2016).

9. Burt, C.D., & Strongman, K. (2005).Use of Images in charity advertising. International Journal of Organizational behavior, 8(8), 571–580

10. Small & Verrochi (2009). Facial Emotion expression on charity advertisements. American Marketing Association, Journal of Marketing Research December 2009

11. Marketing Magazine (2016). Floating Hospital Campaigns for Support

12. Social Good Summit, New York 2016

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