Tag Archives: visual culture

Guilt, pity and shame in humanitarian and human rights communications

This post was contributed by Dr Bruna Seu from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies

NGOs often use images designed to induce feelings of guilt in order to encourage donations

You have just sat down for lunch. You switch on the TV and you are confronted with the image of a malnourished child. Somebody is measuring their arm with a tape and the appeal asks you to donate £3. It’s simple: you have your lunch, they don’t. You feel guilty and you give.

This guilt-inducing formula raises much-needed revenue for NGOs and humanitarian organisations, so it is understandable why they return to it time and again. However, my research into the way the public responds to information about human rights violations and humanitarian crises suggests that using guilt as a fundraising tool is problematic.

The problem with guilt in humanitarian fundraising

The pain of guilt inspires in people a new capacity for reparation and the desire to right the wrong. While a monetary donation can momentarily alleviate the guilt inspired by humanitarian appeals, for many it does not constitute a sufficiently reparative action.

A more desirable aim than finding a way to momentarily alleviate guilt is to develop a feeling of connectedness with those suffering. Development of a meaningful understanding of the issues at play is hindered by narrow, racially-stereotyped portrayals of developing countries, which ignore the role of domestic actors in the global South and reinforce the perception that more charity is required rather than fundamental political and economic change.

A further problem is that the sheer volume of these guilt-inducing messages leads to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that shuts down routes to improved understanding and connectedness, creating a vicious cycle where we feel guilty, donate to alleviate guilt, and then ignore the suffering other until we are bombarded by further guilt-inducing messages. This cycle leaves no room for alternative thinking that would increase awareness of development issues or behavioural engagement in the form of volunteering and campaigning.

Participants in my studies have shown awareness of guilt being part of their immediate reaction and that when ‘it wears off’, as they put it, they are left with nothing to hang onto. So we have a self-perpetuating cycle whereby people donate partly because they  feel pity, compassion, guilt and they want to help; partly because they don’t know what else to do; and partly, as a consequence of these two. Donating is a way of ‘switching off with a clear conscience’.

Shame vs guilt

My research is now beginning to consider the experience of shame as opposed to guilt, and whether this would lead to more meaningful engagement in the issues. There are many potential problems to invoking feelings of shame. However, while guilt is related to an action – something we did or didn’t do, shame is about the whole of ourselves. Yet, precisely because it is personal, rather than relating to a bad action, it rests on relationality – what needs repairing is the link with the other. Let’s say if guilt messages are of the kind ‘skip lunch – save a child’ and a child dies because you did not skip lunch, of course you give – you ‘did the right thing’. But what if messages prompted reactions such as: ‘I don’t want to be the kind of person who is informed of such horrors and doesn’t do anything.’?

Contrary to guilt, regulated by the world of norms and laws which is the territory of the superego – the self I ought to be, the referent in shame is the ego ideal – the self I wish I could be. It might seem a small difference, but one that shifts the terrain from the transactional to the relational. I am no longer saving the other, but on the contrary it is with the other that I can be saved. When the bond between self and other is intact we feel pride and harmony. Maybe such a relational mode could return dignity and power to the other and make us agents not of hand downs but of our own betterment as human beings.

This article is based on a talk that Dr Seu gave recently at the Dartington Centre for Social Research

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Scratching Surfaces: Attractions and Pitfalls of Using Ads as Historical Sources

This post was contributed by Jessica Borge a former PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

Old adverts for contraceptives fascinate, illuminate, offend, perturb and delight. My own Jessica Borge Doctoral research project, “The London Rubber Company, the Condom and the Pill in 1960s Britain”, unravels obscured marketing practices for commercially traded birth control in the 1960s. As such, I have spent a lot of time looking at contraceptive ads from this period. But using advertising as source materials is a complex business.

c.1968. Physician's circular / Searle, 'Ovulen'. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

c.1968. Physician’s circular / Searle, ‘Ovulen’. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

Unlike non-commercial material from the archives, dusted-off remnants of ad campaigns are possessed of a particular mystique, which might justifiably be described as a sort of ‘faded power’.

At one time, any given advert almost certainly sought to cajole, inform or to inspire action. But, removed from the conditions that engendered their creation and dissemination, impotent old ads no longer sell as powerfully as they might have done in their original setting.

For the researcher, immunity to ‘the sell’ can be an empowering invitation to step in. With the added benefits of historical distance and 21st-century savvy, defunct ads are particularly emasculated by the passing of time, leaving the stage open for involved analysis.

In the case of 1960s contraceptive ads, bonus layers of intrigue expand the potential for fun decoding games beyond the semiotician’s wildest dreams. For one thing, contraceptive products obviously involve sex somewhere along the line. And sex is always interesting. For another, contraceptive manufacturers have long been regarded as, well, ‘a bit dodgy’, which was always part of the challenge of contraceptive communication. An annoying cultural association with wartime prostitution and general grubbiness, for example, marred the image of the condom in post-war Britain. Regulatory barriers also impeded the public use of contraceptive trade names in some advertising (top tip: don’t give your condoms and rubber gloves the same handle – it only makes things worse). For ‘the Pill’, a prescription pharmaceutical contraceptive, print ads were ostensibly intended for the eyes of medics rather than laypeople. Sex – believe it or not – was frequently left out of these ads all together.

But how would you choose? More to the point, how would you be persuaded?

c.1970. Physician's tri-fold circular / Parke Davis, ‘Orlest’ and ‘Norlestrin’. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

c.1970. Physician’s tri-fold circular / Parke Davis, ‘Orlest’ and ‘Norlestrin’. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

Recovery of the advert’s mechanism of persuasion is, for some researchers, the ultimate goal. When this is the reason ads are used as sources, a salvage of probable intentions and effects is – more often than not – conducted by sweeping an imaginary net over the surface, scooping up symbols of interest, and subjecting these to the mill of theory. What or whom is represented here? With whom do these representations resonate? How do such signs govern, or attempt to govern, the roles of those subjects represented, in real life? What does this mean in terms of power and authority? These are all important questions, for sure, and reminiscent of motivational cues known to be employed in creating advertising campaigns in the first place.

But the problem with ads, past and present, is that they are the most available expression of long, labour-intensive processes that are themselves difficult to recover. In portfolios and in archives, as in magazines and on screens, the ad is showcased in isolation. An ad’s workings (i.e., brand history, strategy, rationale, brand objectives, targeting) are concealed, discarded or forgotten. Of course, that is part of the enigma of advertising; it is always very difficult to identify which elements (or combinations of elements) ultimately make an ad effective. Furthermore, many ads that exist in archives are the sole surviving components of bigger, multi-faceted marketing campaigns, minor elements that did not lead campaigns, but rather rode on the coat tails of numerous (unrecorded) promotional activities.

If, as researchers, we primarily regard the surface of a campaign, and consider the visual ad the most choice cut of the marketing mix (primarily because it is more readily available), we risk further obscuring the already illusive apparatus of production and communication. This is regrettable, because production circumstances and processes yield potentially important information. Marketing strategies are conceived not within vacuums, but within complex environments, in which influences and meanings ebb and flow, accrue and evaporate. Like a jigsaw puzzle, it is useful to start with the edges, rather than the middle; in the end, it is surprising how things come together.

With thanks to Alison Payne, Julia Larden, Bryony Merritt, Janet McCabe, Suzannah Biernoff, the Wellcome Library, London, and Pfizer.


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About Jessica:

Jessica completed her PhD at Birkbeck in 2017 under the supervision of Janet McCabe and Suzannah Biernoff, with a thesis entitled, “‘Wanting it Both Ways”: The London Rubber Company, the Condom and the Pill, 1915 -1970”. Following this, Jessica undertook a two-year postdoc on the BodyCapital project at the Département d’Histoire des sciences de la Vie et de la Santé, Université de Strasbourg. She holds a visiting fellowship in digital humanities at the School of Advanced Study, and is currently Digital Collections (Scholarship) Manager at King’s College London Archives and Research Collections.

Her monograph, “Protective Practices: A History of the London Rubber Company and the Condom Business” is published by McGill-Queens University Press. More information can be found at the London Rubber Company’s website.