Syria Videos and the ASPCA

by Bob Schwartz

ASPCA Ad
Almost everyone knows the Sarah McLachlan television ad for the ASPCA, her haunting song Angel playing as background for heart-tugging scenes of cats and dogs. It is widely reviled and sometimes mocked: some viewers can’t lunge quickly enough for the remote. It is also one of the most successful fundraising ads ever, considered by some a game changer.

This weekend, supporters of a military strike against Syria are using a similar approach. Horrific videos of victims, especially children, in the throes of chemical warfare in Syria are now circulating.

Emotional rather than rational appeals have to be carefully calibrated. There may be a sense that the emotional appeal is a last resort, because your rational argument is weak or failing. Viewers may also feel unduly manipulated, even insulted, by the premise that they are too stupid or uncaring to get the point otherwise. Finally, disgust may take over, nearly making further appreciation of whatever good arguments there are impossible to hear.

The ASPCA ad worked not because people were entirely guiltily coerced into giving. Those who did manage to stay and were not turned off had an aha moment: you know, I thought about it some more, and I get the point. Animals are mistreated and homeless, something I care about, and I can help.

This is where the Syria horror show falls down. Even when those who aren’t disgusted to the point of numbness think about it, they have trouble getting the point because, even if there is or once was a focused point in Syria, it keeps shifting, as do the rationales, as do the discussions of outcomes.

If you give to the ASPCA, there is reasonable certainty that your donation will go to programs reasonably designed to help mistreated and homeless animals. If you give your approval and support to an attack on Syria, what exactly are you getting for that donation?

Extreme emotional appeals are not necessarily illegitimate; in some cases, as with the Holocaust, they are necessary. But care is the keynote, knowing exactly what you are saying in support of what you are showing. Right now, the Syria videos are being shown in the context of a bunch of different explanations. The audience is left not only with uncertainty about where it all leads or should lead, but with a diminished regard for the presenter. These are serious times, and when the presenter is the President of the United States, none of us can afford that.

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