Save Africa: Charity&Mediated Suffering

How cynical are we about charities’ representations of mediated suffering?

While this might seem like an over exaggerated view of the representation of suffering by charities, there is a lot of truth behind this video. The over reliance of this type of depiction by charities is common knowledge and has become the bud of parodies like this video of Michael, the fundraising actor. As well as the ‘Sceptical 3rd World Child’ meme in late 2012, which reached 17,000 up votes on Reddit in just 24 hours.


In order to understand why charity directors choose to utilise this method to raise funds we first need to examine the current state of the industry. Since the 1970’s charitable giving has remained stuck at only 2% of the US GDP ($300 Billion annually), of which only 20% ($60 Billion dollars) goes to directly assisting those affected (Palotta, D 2013). From the 1970’s only 144 NFP (not for profit) companies have managed to cross the $50 million annual revenue barrier, versus the 46, 136 FP (For Profit) companies.

The reason for this lack of growth is due to the limitations and restrictions put on the NFP sector versus the FP, this has handicapped charities, making them unable to compete on any level. Palotta states that NFP’s are handicapped in 5 areas:

  • Compensation: Cannot make money from doing good, profit leads to judgement
  • Advertising and Marketing: Money shouldn’t be spent on these activities, despite the need for exposure
  • Risk Averse: High profit benchmarking and monitoring cut opportunity for innovation
  • Time: Focus on short-term gains rather than investing into long term strategies
  • Profit to attract risk capital: NFP cannot take investment & capital away from FP

As a result charities choose to focus on strategies that have higher call to action rates, low cost and have been proven to be effective. These types of representations aim to trigger an emotional response in the viewer and are known in media ethics literature as ‘media witnessing’.

“Successful ‘media witnessing texts’ are measured by how they enable ‘witnessing subjectivities’ through aesthetic, narrative, and technological techniques that enable reflexivity, estrangement, and an ‘experience of loss’ on the part of their readers and viewers” (Brand 2009, p. 201)

These representations pull on our heartstrings and all the way down to our wallets, by playing on our notion of “common global humanity, shared values, universal human rights, basic human emotions or collective responsibilities” (Ong 2012, p.185). A study by Ming and Mona (2015, p.529) found that along with techniques such as visualisation of suffering and narratives of grief, campaigns often utilise 4 key representations to garner support (physical hardship, hostile nature, survival, bravery/heroism).

As a result of this over reliance the public has become desensitized to these types of images, switching off, and tapping into automated cognitive processing, which requires less processing power, attention and awareness, making these images largely ineffective. So how to we get people to donate without making a spectacle of suffering? Well academics like Melinda French and Dan Palotta states that we need to stop confusing “morality with frugality”. We need to combat the barrier of ‘overhead’, seeing it as fuel for growth, rather than taking funds away from the cause. With more funds marketing teams will be able to be innovative and avoid using cliché tactics; what matters is the size of the pie, who cares how big the amount that is spend on overhead, if more funds are going to those affected.

Remember, you have spend money to make money.


 Palotta, D 2013, The Way We Think About Charity Is Dead Wrong,

Ong, J.C 2012,   Witnessing or Mediating Distant Suffering? Ethical Questions across Moments of Text, Production and Reception, Television and New Media , vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 179 – 196

Ming, L & Mona , M 2015, The spectacularization of suffering: an analysis of the use of celebrities in ‘Comic Relief’ UK’s charity fundraising campaigns, Journal of Marketing Management, vol. 31, no. 5-6, pp. 525-545

Brand, R. 2009. “Witnessing Trauma on Film.” In Media Witnessing: Testimony in the Age of Mass Communication, pp.198-214. London: Palgrave



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