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A commercial break, creating a brief pause between screenings of prime time TV. A black screen fades in, and melancholy music plays in the background. The names of prominent charitable organizations appear on the backdrop: “UNICEF,” “Food for the Poor,” “St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.” The sunken faces of wide-eyed, famished children slowly fill our screens. How should we, as viewers, react?

The visual depiction of human suffering in charity commercials is necessary for provoking an emotional response from viewers that can yield donations for the organization in question. Granted, there is no guarantee that such advertisements will motivate people to make donations from their couches. But visual presentations of suffering are much more effective than alternative methods of textual accounts and plain statements of fact. Consider a charity commercial that presents statistics on a blank background. It is unlikely that viewers will react, instead turning back to their phone screens. Facts are cold and detached from reality, and human beings do not respond emotively to data. The relative success of charitable commercials in capturing attention stems from their powerful raw imagery.

However, critics like executive director of War on Want John Hilary and Regarding Humanity co-founder Linda Raftree point out that visual advertisements risk objectifying those that are struggling. Textual content does not feed into objectification in the same way visual depiction does because it maintains a distance between the viewer and the victim. However, there is indeed something unsettling about stock photos of distant tragedies such as poverty, harassment, and sickness. Opponents of current visual advertisements find fault in the fact that viewers may feel as though they are largely different from those being depicted, that they cannot relate to the victims. These critics call for advertisements that empower donors to advocate for the charity. Overall, I concede that in merely splashing photos of anonymous, voiceless victims, we may fail to connect the viewer with the victims. Therefore, charity organizations should encourage photographers and videographers to capture the lives, rather than just the faces, of these often forgotten people through personalized video depictions. 

Commercials should extend beyond the stationary photo; this way, they can more appropriately narrate the character of the people they depict. For instance, in short video clips of a young boy speaking an describing his daily activities, perhaps even his life story, the “subject” of an advertisement is no longer a subject, but a person. Additionally, from these stories, viewers can garner an even better idea of both the painful physical and traumatic emotional struggles faced by the victims of poverty and illness, rather than try to surmise these idiosyncratic hardships based on what a photo appears to share.  

Moreover, in hearing people speak via interviews, the audience can be better assured that those portrayed in the commercial are willing to call attention to their cause. With photos, the viewer may wonder if the person depicted even knows that they will become the source of empathy in thousands of living rooms. Critics note that it is important that advertisements get consent from the depicted person. As viewers, we should find it troubling if innocent people are not given a voice in their representation. With more personalized descriptions, and particularly with interviews and videos of single people, we can better serve the people depicted in commercials. By this means, those depicted are treated with respect and given the courtesy to choose how they represent themselves, with control over expressing their own reality to a large audience.

This personalized interview, call to action, or life description could prove to be more effective in communicating the reality of the situation, and in turn yield more donations. A video does not sacrifice a picture’s emotional response for the sake of a personalized, respectful depiction — indeed, it works to augment these factors.  

The visual depiction of human suffering remains widely contested over its potential to objectify the people in struggle. Visual depiction lends itself as more powerful in its appeal to sentiment, through the emotional heartbeat that unites humanity. To assuage some tensions in the visual depiction debate, and more importantly, to holistically depict people in hardship, videos could serve to communicate the story behind the face of struggle. 

Sabrina Sequeira is a first-year from Springfield, N.J. She can be reached at sgs4@princeton.edu.

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