Alleviating the world’s suffering is a never-ending battle. Are advertisers really prepared to fight it?
Where once there were many yard signs, banners and tee-shirts, now there are few: “Pray for Ukraine,” “Support Ukraine,” and, “Get Out Putin!” and the irascibly obscene, “Puck Futin.”
It isn’t that Americans don’t still care about Ukraine: They do. Dollars continue to pour into ongoing humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. The media landscape remains filled with think pieces and op-eds alternately entertaining the notion Ukraine might need to make land concessions in order to end the conflict and expressing outrage at the very idea.
But the media landscape is, as President Joe Biden reminded America last night, not unlike a minefield of clickbait and sensationalist journalism these days. The Weekly World News is what sells in today’s marketplace and hawkers are clogging up the airwaves with a near-constant inundation of negative news stories.
A steady drum-beat of doomsayers have pounded the delicate sensibilities of our unwary populace into a pretzel of anxiety and existential dread over the past few years in particular.
Censorship? We should be so lucky.
So it isn’t that interest in Ukraine has waned, and with it all those advertising campaigns centered around the conflict; it’s that other things have happened. Other suffering, other terrors; gun violence, mass murder, natural disasters and terrorist attacks have intruded.
It isn’t that people don’t care; it’s that they often care too much and are overwhelmed by the magnitude of suffering in the world. The Information Age, the internet, and social media have brought us into close grips with enough horrific photos, videos, and first-hand accounts to send the average person into hysterics.
The number of things vying for our compassion is stunning. There are just so many, it’s never ending. Saving the environment from wanton human destruction, reforming systems of injustice, reversing deforestation and loss of animal habitat worldwide, ending violent conflicts and wars, preventing humankind from being swallowed up in an ocean of single-use plastics; and on and on without end.
Getting people to care, and keep caring, about making the world a better place isn’t a new game in town. It’s a very old, arduous and often thankless game undertaken by some of the best human beings who have ever lived on this planet.
They start non-profits, dedicate their lives to improving the lives of other people through access to education, clean water, opportunities; they endow scholarships and charitable trusts, run for office. They perform great feats of engineering and science to fundamentally transform and empirically improve life as we know it.
The inventor of anesthesiology, bless him, whose contribution to American life was such as to warrant a statue in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, is one such. A couple of Californians outfitted their van in the 1980s to perform low-cost spay and neuter services; they inspired a movement which brought the yearly euthanasia numbers for cats and dogs down from 14 million per year to between 2–3 million per year.
Charitable organizations rescue farm animals, they defend indigent people accused of crimes. Non-profits, and the people who run them, feed the hungry, house the homeless, counsel the survivors of domestic abuse, treat children afflicted with cancer.
Humanitarian organizations rebuild schools in Haiti after a devastating earthquake; over a decade later, some of them are still there.
Captain Paul Watson returns to the sea year after year, often, as he once promised, with a bigger boat. As long as the slaughter of whales goes on, the Sea Shepard will be there.
Charitable and humanitarian organizations, non-profits dedicated to making the world a better place, have their work cut out for them.
Successful non-profits the world over, those which stand the test of time, know something very important about the work they do: Getting people to care isn’t easy.
In fact, most of the time it’s impossible. A small number of people contribute regularly, financially or materially, to the causes they care about; the majority do not.
They care, but life happens. It is inconvenient, expensive, messy and time flies; most working-class people and families are maxed out by its stresses.
Penetrating the fog of war of people’s daily lives is the calling of the altruist, the philanthropist, the activist. But getting people to care enough to do something is very difficult.
Getting them to continue to care is almost impossible.
Loyal donors aren’t unknown in the world of philanthropic giving; many regular donors are loyal. Attracting new donors who stay loyal to the cause is the brass ring; not every well-meaning organization can grab it and grow.
Charitable giving isn’t like advertising. A corporation can run a good advertising campaign against something ephemeral, like “toxic masculinity,” and perhaps get people (on Twitter) talking about toxic masculinity for a single news cycle, maybe a week if the marketeers get lucky.
The organizations actually dedicated full-time to addressing problems created by “toxic masculinity”, like domestic violence and family crisis centers, alcohol and drug addiction counseling services, even educational resource managers must go on fighting the good fight long after the last commercial has aired.
Unilever, which owns Gillette and its short-lived “toxic masculinity” advertising campaign, went back to making razors; getting people to continue to care about toxic masculinity wasn’t the purpose of the ad campaign. Which is good, because that would require a commercial a day, probably everyday, forevermore. And even that probably wouldn’t do it.
Some non-profits have advertising budgets the size of a small country. They are dedicated to nothing else except their particular cause, or set of interrelated causes. They still have problems drumming up enough financial and material support, month after month, year after year, to keep going, and keep making enough of a difference to justify keeping the organization alive.
Charitable and philanthropic efforts and undertakings are begun everyday; they probably have about the same survival rate as restaurants. It is a difficult business; just wanting to help isn’t enough. It takes remarkable dedication, sacrifice and commitment.
Greenpeace, the Red Cross, the Humane Society, the American Cancer Society, the Salvation Army; the organizations which do stand the test of time, do so because of the herculean efforts of a compassionate core of people who make the cause central in their lives.
Their greatest challenge is apathy and its older, tougher cousin, compassion fatigue.
It’s hard to care; mentally and physically. Burn-out is something those involved in humanitarian and charitable missions understand well and battle constantly.
Advertisers might not be ready for the commitment.
But there is one subject about which we humans never tire thinking about, which is why advertisers have been so successfully using it since advertising began: Ourselves.
Ad campaigns selling us better versions of ourselves, distractions from ourselves, products which might encourage others to be interested in ourselves; there is a good reason these are tried-and-true methods. Marketers may soon need to abandon this newly created marketing strategy of corporate virtue signaling for their old, more efficient method: Using our insecurities to sell us things.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)