Evoking Emotion: Non-Profit Advertising and Its Effect on a Viewer’s Likelihood to Give Back

“In the arms of the angels, fly away from here…” These lyrics now mean so much more to a person than just being a part of a beautiful song. People now immediately call to mind a sick dog abused on the side of the road or a cat that is struggling to find a place of shelter away from the dangers of life. Overall, most now relate these lyrics to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). This heart-wrenching commercial was able to bring in roughly $30 million and 200,000 new donors for the organization since the first airing in 2007 (Strom, 2008). These staggering numbers make it the ASPCA’s most successful fundraising effort to date. The success of this single commercial represents a major milestone in for non-profit advertising.

Recently, large American nonprofits spend at least $7.6 billion per year on marketing to inevitably inspire personal interest in their cause (Flynn, 2010). Therefore, it is imperative to understand the persuasive impact of marketing to fully grasp where each charity is trying to find their competitive edge. With more than 800,000 charitable organizations in the United States alone, it is the charities’ jobs to compete for limited donation dollars (Small & Verrochi, 2009). Oftentimes, non-profit organizations attempt to persuade donors by tugging at heartstrings through emotional appeals. Researchers have suggested that individuals primed with emotions may be more likely to donate their money and/or time (Kemp, Kennett-Hensel, & Kees, 2013).

Therefore, this research brief aims to examine how non-profit organizations use emotion-evoking advertising to encourage donations. Specifically, this brief will focus on the effectiveness of sympathy, empathy, guilt and nostalgia as emotional appeals to draw in audiences and strengthen their donor base. Communication practitioners can use the results of this research brief to consider the effectiveness of emotional appeals when they are attempting to engage their publics in prosocial behavior.

Literature Review

This brief reviews literature in four primary areas: sympathy, empathy, guilt and nostalgia as four emotions that non-profit advertisements have successfully used to increase donations.


Small & Verocchi (2009) define sympathy as the emotional concern for the welfare of another person. Victims are pictured on charity appeals to elicit the responses that are believed to prompt pro-social behavior. Small & Verrochi conducted an experimental quantitative study with a non-random sample of 151 university staff members to examine how emotional expressions on a child’s face (happy, sad, or neutral) influenced the willingness do donate money for a pro-social cause. The participants were randomly assigned to look at advertisements for an organization supporting childhood cancer research. At the end of the study, they were told they could donate any of their $10 compensation to the foundation. Results indicated that 77.4 percent of the participants in the sad expression condition donated their compensation due to feeling sympathetic for the depicted child versus 52.1 percent of the happy condition and 52 percent in the neutral condition.

Dickert, Sagara, and Slovic (2011) also look at the importance of evoking sympathy through imagery in an experimental study of a non-random sample of 256 undergraduate students at the University of Oregon. Participants were randomly assigned into six conditions: calculation prime (perform algebraic calculations), affective prime (how they felt about specific objects or people), or neutral prime vs. one or eight sick children. Half of the participants were randomly selected to be in one child condition and the other half were put in the eight children condition. After viewing the picture, they were asked if they would make a hypothetical financial contribution. They found that 90 percent indicated they would donate money; the highest donation condition was the affect prime condition at 96 percent. Dickert et al.’s findings prove that participants decided their financial support based on their sympathy towards the victims.

Kemp, Kennett-Hensel, & Kees (2013) also examined the efficacy of charitable appeals to propagate sympathy and the willingness to donate through imagery in ads. A non-random sample of 84 nonstudent adults in the Austin, Texas area participated in the descriptive quantitative study. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either a sympathy or pride appeal for a local non-profit. After they viewed the appeal, they were then asked their likelihood to give money to the charity. Results showed that the sympathy appeal had the greatest impact on the participants. The study’s findings show that evoking sympathy in emotional appeals is a successful tactic in encouraging helping behavior.

In conclusion, this research demonstrates that sympathy is an emotion that emotionally connects a viewer to the advertisement through feeling a sympathetic connection with the people and/or copy. Sympathy works as an emotion that successfully gains charitable donations with the overwhelming majority of people tested in the studies proving it to be so.


            Empathy can be defined as the experience of emotions and concern for other persons of distress (Paulin, Ferguson, Jost, & Fallu, 2014). Paulin et al. looked at millenials’ likelihood to donate to charitable causes via social media through the influence of empathetic identification. The authors designed and experimentally manipulated Facebook appeal pages in this experimental quantitative study. Two hundred fifty participants were randomly selected from a university business school. They were randomly assigned to examine the Facebook event. The participants then attended the event and were sent an e-mail in the following two weeks to see if they would participate in online (i.e. donating online) or offline (i.e. being a volunteer) behaviors. The results showed that participants had significantly higher intentions to engage in online behaviors than those who did not since they empathetically were identifying with the cause.

Fisher, Vandenbosch, and Antia (2008) tested the “empathy-helping hypothesis” which posits that people are more likely to give when they can empathize and feel the emotions of those in need. In their descriptive quantitative study, the authors examine the effects of the fundraising appeals used by a local public television station on viewers’ actual donation responses over a 2-year period, directly looking at 584 pledge breaks and four campaigns. Through coding, coders were able to break down the pledges into appeal types and frequency of pledges. They found that negative-emotion interaction had the most positive effect on the number of calls for donations, as they were empathetic through coping with the distress they felt or anticipating the self-censure associated with not helping when asked.

In conclusion, empathy is much like sympathy, but this has more of a concern element for the charitable appeal versus solely feeling bad, or sympathetic. As shown in the aforementioned studies, being able to pull at heartstrings and make the viewer feel the same emotion as the appeal creates a successful campaign that produces more charitable donations.


Basil, Ridgway, and Basil (2006) define guilt as a person willingly going against their understanding of what the right thing to do is. Research indicates that arousing guilt can increase charitable donations. Passyn and Sujan (2006) examined the effect of guilt as a stimulus in charitable advertising on feelings of self-accountability. In this experimental quantitative study, Passyn and Sujan selected 96 undergraduates to view pamphlets on skin cancer and sunscreen usage. The participants each viewed the pamphlet that contained first-person stories and scenarios of a boy named Andy and his battle with melanoma. They produced guilt emotion in the copy by sharing Andy’s concern for his mother. The participants were then asked to fill out a questionnaire on how they felt afterwards. The results of the study showed that guilt is effective in motivating action.

To show how guilt can be manipulated in advertisements, Basil, Ridgway, and Basil conducted a 2 (straight forward guilt: high and low) x 2 (empathy-based guilt: high and low) experimental study with 40 undergraduate business students from a large university in Western United States. Guilt appeals were manipulated through the text of the headline and body copy in ten different mock charity advertisements and the graphics remained the same. After viewing the advertisements, participants had to respond to scale questions for each randomly ordered advertisement. Results demonstrated those who viewed the guilt appeals felt a greater sense of responsibility than those who viewed the non-guilt advertisements. Moreover, the guilt advertisements produced a feeling of responsibility in the participants that in turn significantly increased their intentions to donate.

Similar to the previous study, Hibbert, Smith, Davies, & Ireland (2007) conducted a descriptive quantitative study with a stimuli-driven survey to also look at guilt effectively used in charitable donations advertisements writing and pictures. They conducted a study with a convenience sample of 117 respondents that were found through places of work such as private firms and public sector organizations. Ten guilt advertisements for children’s charities were randomly assigned to the respondents, each having guilt arousing images and copy. Respondents were asked to indicate how each made them feel. Results demonstrated that guilt does indeed have a significant effect on their donations.

Chang examined how guilt appeals and product type influenced behavior using a 2 (appeal type: guilt vs. non-guilt appeal) x 3 (product type: hedonic vs. practical vs. both) x 2 (donation magnitude: high or low) factorial design. A stratified sampling of age and gender from the MSN membership directory was used to select the participants. Participants were randomly assigned an ad that did or did not contain a guilt appeal for varying products. Furthermore, participants were given a charity incentive by being told an automatic donation would be made to the World Vision organization for each unit purchased. The results found that the donations greatly increased and were more effective in guilt appeal advertisements than non-guilt appeals and also with hedonic products.

In conclusion, guilt is an emotion that when you are able to tap into, makes for very successful charitable appeals. The studies show that through images and copy, one can make the viewer feel responsible and know that the “right thing” is to give back to the charity, at any monetary amount. A person being able to say they gave back to a charity is what matters to them in the end.


Nostalgia can be defined as a sentimental longing for a personally experienced and valued past (Zhou, Wildschut, Sedikides, Shi, & Fend, 2014). Zhou et al. investigated the effect of nostalgia on charitable giving in this descriptive quantitative study by hypothesizing that nostalgia would strengthen participants’ concrete intentions to contribute time and money to charity. They randomly recruited 43 undergraduate students from a Chinese university and randomly assigned them to either a nostalgia or control condition in which they read a prompt. They were then given a one-page description of a non-profit with its mission and were asked to record how much time and money they would donate to this charity. The results found that participants in the nostalgia condition scored significantly higher on the charity index than those in the control condition, showing that they were more generous in contributing time and money after recollecting an event from their past as the prompt suggested.

Looking into ad colors as another manipulation factor, Muehling, Sprott, & Sultan (2014) conducted a descriptive quantitative study comprised of 180 individuals were randomly selected from an online panel provider. The participants were randomly assigned to an experimental (nostalgic) or control (non-nostalgic) ad treatment condition. They participants looked at an advertisement for a toothpaste product and were asked to complete a survey about brand attachment. The nostalgic ad was made so through sepia coloring and imagery. The results of the study show that those participants in the experimental condition had more favorable brand attitudes, and in turn had greater intents to purchase the advertised brand.

In conclusion, this research demonstrates that nostalgia is yet another very successful way to tap into a viewer’s inner psyche and develop a drive in them to want to donate. When a non-profit can tap into a person’s past and make them feel the emotion they felt back in that time, they are successfully able to have a positive effect on the likelihood to give back.


This research brief found there are many emotional connections that can be made if advertisements want to do them. The key idea to any successful advertisement is the need to have a message that is targeting the given audience, but the key to a great charitable appeal is to be able to bring out the emotion from inside the viewer at the same time. There will always be a need for places to differentiate themselves in the cluttered world of advertising, but if the ASPCA proved anything, the current success is found in two simple words: evoking emotion.


Basil, D. Z., Ridgway, N. M., & Basil, M. D. (2006). Guilt appeals: The mediating effect of responsibility. Psychology and Marketing, 23(12), 1035- 1054.

Chang, C. (2011). Guilt appeals in cause-related marketing. International Journal of Advertising, 30(4), 587-616

Dickert, S., Sagara, N., & Slovic, P. (2011). Affective motivations to help others: A two-stage model of donation decisions. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 24(4), 361-376.

Flynn, F. (2010). Getting people to give – and give generously. Retrieved from http://csi.gsb.stanford.edu/getting-people-give-and-give-generously

Fisher, R. J., Vandenbosch, M., & Antia, K. D. (2008). An empathy-helping perspective on consumers’ responses to fund-raising appeals. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 519-531.

Ford, J. B., & Merchant, A. (2010). Nostalgia drives donations. Journal of Advertising Research, 50(4), 450-459.

Hibbert, S., Smith, A., Davies, A., & Ireland, F. (2007). Guilt appeals: Persuasion knowledge and charitable giving. Psychology and Marketing, 24(8), 723-742.

Kemp, E., Kennett-Hensel, P. A., & Kees, J. (2013). Pulling on the heartstrings: Examining the effects of emotions and gender in persuasive appeals. Journal of Advertising, 42(1), 69-79.

Muehling, D. D., Sprott, D. E., & Sultan, A. J. (2014). Exploring the boundaries of nostalgic advertising effects: A consideration of childhood brand exposure and attachment on consumers’ responses to nostalgia-themed advertisements. Journal of Advertising, 43(1), 73-84.

Passyn, K., & Sujan, M. (2006). Self-accountability emotions and fear appeals: Motivating behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 32(4), 583-589.

Paulin, M., Ferguson, R. J., Jost, N., & Fallu, J. (2014). Motivating millenials to engage in charitable causes through social media. Journal of Service Management, 25(3), 334-348.

Small, D. A., & Verrochi, N. M. (2009). The face of need: Facial emotion expression on charity advertisements. Journal of Marketing Research, 46(6), 777-787.

Strom, S. (2008). Ad featuring singer proves bonanza for ASPCA. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/26/us/26charity.html?_r=0

Zhou, X., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Shi, K., & Feng, C. (2014). Nostalgia: The gift that keeps on giving. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(Suppl. 1), S300-S311.


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