A common pastime in the more self-righteous parts of the development chattersphere is tut-tutting about the way poor people are portrayed in NGO ads. It’s nice to feel holier than someone else. But, if you want to help, it is better to think about why things are the way they are, and what the alternatives are. From the New Yorker:
[W]hen we become swept up in powerful narrative, our reason often falls by the wayside. Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University and the director of its Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, studies the power of story in our daily interactions with friends, strangers, books, television, and other media. Repeatedly, he has found that nothing makes us receptive, emotionally and behaviorally, quite like narrative flow.
In one study, Zak and his colleagues asked people to watch a video in which a father talks about his child. “Ben’s dying,” the father tells the camera as it pans to a carefree two-year-old boy in the background. He goes on to say that Ben has a brain tumor that, in a matter of months, will end his life. The father says that he has resolved to stay strong, for the sake of his family, as painful as the coming weeks will be. The camera fades to black. Watching the film prompted about half of the viewers donate money to a cancer charity.
Zak didn’t just ask people to watch “Ben’s Story,” as he calls it. He had them watch it together, while his team monitored their neural activity, specifically the levels of certain hormones released from the brain into the blood. For the most part, the people who watched the video released oxytocin, a hormone that has been associated with empathy, bonding, and sensitivity to social cues. Those who released the hormone also reliably donated to charity, even though there was no pressure to do so.
Next, Zak switched the story around. Now Ben and his dad were at the zoo. Ben was bald. His dad called him “Miracle Boy.” But there was no real story arc, mention of cancer, or discussion of death. The people who watched Ben now drifted away from the story. Their arousal signs fell. They donated little or no money. They also felt less happy and empathetic than those who had seen the original story.
There’s no evidence NGOs are able to change this aspect of human nature. So the question is: do you really think the world would be a better place if they didn’t use the most effective advertising available?