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Can Creating Empathy Do More Harm Than Good?

Campaigns that try to make you walk in the shoes of those less fortunate than you can be powerful, but they carry a big risk of exploitation.

Can Creating Empathy Do More Harm Than Good?
[Photos: via Hungarian Interchurch Aid]

Increasingly charities are using the “empathy angle” as a popular strategy to raise money and awareness for their cause. From 30 Hour Famines to head shaving for those in cancer treatment, nonprofit organizations are challenging the public to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. And while empathy can be a powerful tool to open ones eyes to the plight of another, it can also be very dangerous territory to play in, both for the charity and those taking part.

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Recently, Gwyneth Paltrow admitted she had to quit the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge because $29 dollars was simply not enough to feed her family for a week. Paltrow’s performance on the challenge, from beginning to premature end, is being criticized for “glamorizing” the experience with beautiful food photographs to lying about how true to the diet she was for the four days she lasted. While I personally think throwing in the towel early and writing a statement about how difficult the experience was is both honest and laudable, this fallout raises an important point: there’s a fuzzy line between empathy and exploitation.


And there’s no better demonstration of just how tricky empathy campaigns can be than the provocative campaign #hurtsmetoo. Created by Hungarian Interchurch Aid, the campaign aims to raise money and awareness for safe houses for abused women.

The campaign asks people to buy, wear, and take selfies of their temporary tattoos of fake bruises to show their support for the 1 in 5 Hungarian women who have experienced abuse, and the many more women that feel too ashamed to ever speak out. The proceeds from the tattoos, created by Tatz, help to support women’s shelters.

The shocking images that women are supposed to hash tag with #hurtsmetoo and post on their social media are indeed attention grabbing. The problem is that instead of demonstrating solidarity with the women who have been abused, the campaign feels somewhat offensive. The notion of wearing a temporary tattoo feels superficial and likely undermines the internal and underlying pain that violence inflicts more than it does to elevate the issue.

I have no doubt the campaign is a well-intentioned attempt to tackle a serious problem in Hungary and around the world. They’ve created a website, leveraged high-profile people to participate in the campaign and have come up with a way to raise money (through tattoo sales) that is more unique than a typical straight donation ask. But it’s disappointing that the call to action is for women to create a fake gory look for themselves, as if they were off to a Halloween party, even if it is well intentioned.


And of course there’s the critical question, “Will people take the action?” Will people want to don bruise tattoos and share their battered images in social media? So far the answers seems to be no. Even more important, what are the unintended consequences of that? How would someone who has experienced abuse feel about an artificial display of pain that in fact penetrates much more deeply? It begs the important question for anyone in the campaign space, where do we draw the line between empathy and mockery?

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Key Take Away: Particularly in the social issue space, it’s important to be disruptive and provocative to get noticed and ultimately get people taking the desired action. But you also have to be aware of the unintended consequences or you risk being irresponsible, and even damaging to the very cause you’re trying to help.

About the author

Phillip Haid is the Co-Founder and CEO of PUBLIC Inc., a Toronto based cause-marketing agency and incubator that believes profit & purpose should go hand-in-hand. PUBLIC is working with corporations and charities across North America to redefine “social good” and bring a new approach to cause marketing.

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