You’re sitting in front of the idiot box minding your own business, watching some innocuous program, just a little diversion to take you out of the realities of your daily life, when suddenly out of nowhere you’re hit with a guilt trip. A commercial for a worthy charity comes on using graphic images of its pathetic victims, playing on the viewer’s emotions in an attempt to shame you into giving. The idea of the spot is to rip my heart out so much that I will jump up and run to my checkbook, and with tears in my eyes, write out a substantial donation to the organization.
Well, here’s a news flash for all you charitable organizations who employ this technique: It doesn’t work … at least not with me. I don’t run for my checkbook; I run for the TV remote and either mute the ad or switch channels altogether. And I mentally cross that particular organization off my giving list. You see, I don’t appreciate being emotionally manipulated. It feels like I’m being conned, and I don’t like getting conned. Some of these spots remind me of pitiful beggars on street corners reaching to grab you as you walk by, crying out, “PLEASE…. HELP ME … PLEASE!”
My wife and I give to many worthy causes all year long. It’s something that we have always done and we believe everyone should give what they can to their favorite charities. But I really resent being shamed into it. Don’t parade the crippled children in front of me, don’t show me starving babies in Africa with flies crawling over their crying faces, and don’t show me wounded veterans unable to hold their kids in their arms because they have no arms.
The Department of Health and Human Services has jumped on the bandwagon of late and has cranked up the horror with their anti-smoking ads. They show people literally dying in beds, hooked up to tubes coughing their guts up. They think the only way to get people to quit smoking is to scare the crap out of them.
I know horrible things happen all over the world all the time and we, who are more fortunate, need to help those who are in trouble and hurting — I get it, really. You don’t have to shock me into doing what’s right; just ask me nicely for help without rubbing my face in it. You don’t have to freak me out with horror images; if you make your case in a tasteful way, chances are I’ll pitch in with a few bucks to help. It’s all in how you approach me.
Watching this year’s Westminster dog show I was happy to see that the new sponsor, Purina PetCare, has taken a more positive approach to their commercials than those of the previous sponsor, Pedigree, which ran spots in years past of sad dogs in cages waiting to take that final walk. This year we didn’t have to look away when the ads came on showing pitiful little faces peering out from behind dirty, rusted bars of a cage and practically saying, “PLEASE … HELP ME!”
Westminster spokesman and longtime TV host David Frei said, “The feedback we got from our primary audience was that they were seeing commercials that made them want to turn the channel.” Frei said he thought the Pedigree commercials took the wrong approach. Backed by viewers who either muted the spots or flipped the channel and didn’t turn back, he said to Pedigree, “Show me an ad with a dog with a smile. Don’t try to shame me.” Frei said, “We told them [Pedigree] that and they ignored us.” So Westminster switched to Purina.
“Our show is a celebration of dogs,” Frei said. “We’re not promoting purebreds at the expense of non-purebreds. We celebrate all dogs. When we’re seeing puppies behind bars, it takes away from that. Not just because it’s sad, but it’s not our message.” Purina’s main spots feature dogs running on the beach, catching a Frisbee, frolicking in the snow, and riding a surfboard: wonderful, positive, loving images of dogs, not guilt trips.
Purina’s ads are based on a theme: Inside every good dog is a great dog. Its main 60-second spot shows lots of wagging tails — there are therapy dogs, rescue dogs, guide dogs, show dogs, household pets, and a playful pooch greeting a serviceman. If only charities would take a page out of the Westminster approach I might start running for my checkbook again instead of the TV remote.