Who is more at fault in this situation - the advertiser, or society?

Suppose that someone advertising for a humanitarian charity has noted that people are far more likely to donate money if a poster banner depicts a child that is cute and of a particular race (let’s say, white) than if a poster banner depicts a child that is ugly and of a different race (let’s say, black or Hispanic.)

This advertiser then puts in place an unofficial rule: Only cute white children will be shown on these humanitarian-charity poster banners; children that are not cute and not white will not have their pictures displayed. And yes indeed, donations skyrocket and people are donating lots of money; far more than they would have, had they seen pictures of suffering children who are not cute or not white. Children who are not cute or not white simply don’t tug on these donors’ heartstrings the same way.
Now, who is *more *morally wrong here - the advertiser, or the general public? Obviously, they’re both morally at fault, but who is *more *at fault?

Why is anyone morally at fault necessarily? If the charitable organization is doing good work why shouldn’t they use an effective means of advertising? It is not morally wrong to show pictures of cute ‘white’ children only presuming that it’s morally not-wrong to raise money with pictures of children to start with. Why would I be morally wrong for donating to a charity that is showing a cute ‘white’ child? Should I only donate to charities that demonstrate their cause with the most diverse possible examples?

You are, for trying to impose your moral indignation on these poor people that are just trying to get through the day.

I’m amused you think this is a hypothetical. When was the last time you saw a really ugly baby advertising anything? What proportion of babies in advertising are white already (I’m betting a majority).

I’m not sure what fault you’re trying to assign- people like cute kids over “ugly” ones? Society is biased towards white kids (enough studies have proven that)? That advertisers try to maximize revenue by playing into stereotypes and cultural biases?

Can you further explain what you are asserting they are doing wrong?

This piqued my interest because I’ve heard the same thing about animals. Apparently there is a very real problem with trying to raise money to preserve endangered species, because people only want to donate to save the cute ones. Nobody wants to donate money to save an ugly or predatory animal.

Why is anyone at fault?

As far as charity goes, it’s not about the ethnicity of the baby, but about whether the baby appears to be happy or in distress. Charities have repeatedly found that when they show the children who are in the worst circumstances, who are crying or appear to be hungry and wearing rags, they get a far more generous response than they do when they show the “after” pictures of children who are well fed and clothed and playing happily.

I don’t see anything wrong with basing advertising decisions on this premise, or on whatever premise will bring in the greatest amount of money, as long as you’re not making fraudulent claims. If you show images that can be shown to have been manipulated, or to not accurately reflect the circumstances, and the deception is uncovered (which it almost certainly will be in the Internet age), that will damage your reputation and hurt donations. But as long as your images are essentially truthful, it only makes sense to use the ones that are most effective.

Well, there were or are the ads for some charity or other who did facial surgeries, and they showed children with cleft palates and split lips and so forth. And we have all seen the black, swollen-bellied child with the flies buzzing around him from many African famine commercials. And I think it is PlaySkool that makes a point of including kids with Down syndrome in their ads. So it isn’t always pretty kids in ads.

I read some story recently, of a family advertising “Free to a good home - eight cute puppies and an ugly one”, who were snowed under by offers to adopt the ugly one.


I’d say society is “at fault.” We’re the ones who (in the mass) are swayed by advertising. Entire elections can be bought and sold: we (statistically) let ads influence our most important decisions.

Advertisers are a little bit “at fault” for exploiting this weakness in human nature – but the function of competition in the free market means that those who don’t advertise in a manipulative fashion will be at a disadvantage. We – we the people – reward these guys’ behavior.

Are we being immoral though, or just gullible?

One key question here is how much people are to be blamed for their implicit biases.

I’m not sure implicit bias carries much moral blameworthiness. Moral blameworthiness requires moral agency, but by it’s nature, implicit bias doesn’t involve agency. The actions a person can take to avoid implicit bias in the advertising context are limited. The best ways to avoid and mitigate implicit bias are priming (intentional exposure to positive examples from negatively stereotyped races), exposure (getting lots of exposure to other races so that the negative archetypes hold less sway, perhaps a sub-set of priming), and deliberation (when given the opportunity to think carefully about a decision, implicit bias is often reduced).

The nature of advertising pretty much eliminates priming and deliberation as potential strategies. So moral blameworthiness for implicit bias sort of boils down to blaming a person for not exposing themselves more to other races. That may be a moral choice to some extent, but certainly not in all circumstances.

The blameworthiness of the charity involves a different problem of how to weigh moral evil versus moral good. But that’s a pretty classic moral problem, and obviously depends on your choice of overarching moral framework. I don’t blame them too much. Their incremental contribution to the problem of racism is small, and I doubt that even if every such advertising ignored social preferences that it would make much of a dent in the terrible impact of racism in the world.

To quibble with you on this point:

Recently I’ve read a number of case studies relating to genetic causes of cleft palate. Those cases are nothing like the photogenic examples chosen for fundraising campaigns*. I guarantee you that those images are very carefully selected to be noticeably abnormal, without being too unpleasant to look at. Anything more severe would cause a lot of visceral feelings of fear and revulsion.

*also white, even though the children most in need of charity in this case are going to be disproportionately minorities since access to health care is still fucked in this country.

Sick children or children in distress is a different situation than an “ugly” child.

For the record, when I was working for a children’s organization, there was a constant debate over whether pictures of children in obvious hardship were more effective than children who were healthy and thriving. (While there was no proof, the general feeling seemed to be that you showed children in hardship to get people on your mailing list, then switch to happy children to reinforce the idea that our efforts were successful.)

When my wife was teaching special ed, she said reporters always wanted kids in wheelchairs, because handicaps like learning disabilities or even visual impairment just didn’t have the impact of a kid in a wheelchair.

OK, I’m a charity advertiser in North America and Europe. I am targeting the people in any campaign to raise the most money. Am I wrong in thinking that people give most to help themselves or people like them? Are not a majority of the people and thus most of the funds controlled by white people in these regions? So does it not make sense to use cute little white kids as the most effective and efficient means? Say an earthquake devastates San Francisco. If I am trying to raise funds in Honk Kong or Beijing would I not try to find people in the Chinatown area of the city for the videos?

Not necessarily, otherwise all those “Feed the starving children” campaigns that show extreme poverty in Latin America and Africa would fail utterly.

Excellent question! I would say that, at times, being gullible is immoral. If it causes you to duck the responsibility of knowing better, when you shirk your “due diligence,” then that can lead to making moral errors.

If you let advertising sway your choices in breakfast cereal, well, no big deal, but if you let TV and radio ads have too much influence on your voting, it could constitute a kind of moral negligence. We have some duty to inform ourselves on the real issues.

(There aren’t many – thank God – but there really are some people who vote for candidates on the basis of personal appearance. “That guy has an honest face: I’m voting for him!” To my mind, this goes beyond mere gullibility, into the realm of immoral carelessness.)