The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Pulling Out Your Heartstrings

If you’ve been near a TV or radio in the last twenty years, you’ve heard commercials and PSAs asking for charitable donations. After major disasters, celebrities like Billy Bob Thorton make appeals for Red Cross donations, or Alyssa Milano and UNICEF plead for aid on behalf of children worldwide. And of course, there are the ads Sarah MacLaughlin appears in for the SPCA.


These ads typically include striking images: dogs who’ve nearly been beaten to death. Kids with flies in their eyes and protruding ribs. It’s hard to watch without feeling a pull on your heartstrings—and your purse strings.


Scholar Kevin Rozario says that appeals to compassion have a long history in America, a history that stretches at least as far back as 1852, when Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe, says Rozario, depicted the harsh conditions of slavery in the hope that reasonable Americans would feel driven to abolish it.

Uncle Tom

“She’s gonna tell them what’s going on and she hopes that they’ll be horrified by slavery and work to put an end to it. And so she’s got a strong sense that what she’s really catering to is the compassion and the enlightened reason of her readers.”


By and large, charity organizations during Stowe’s time approached their mission the same way: all you had to do was tell people how bad something was and their natural sense of right and wrong would require that they help. But in the early 1900s, Rozario says, charities started thinking about their donors in a new way: no longer as naturally compassionate, but as people who had to be convinced to care,


“As if they are consumers who have to be manipulated in some ways, by appealing to their desires. And one of the ways that you appeal to people’s desires…in the 1910s, especially, is that you present them with lots of very vivid, thrilling, exciting images to get their attention.”


It was a technique taken straight from the playbook of advertisers, who were also discovering new ways of capturing people’s attention around this time, Rozario says.



A snippet from one issue of the Red Cross magazine, published by the organization’s publicity department.

A snippet from one issue of the Red Cross magazine, published by the organization’s publicity department.



“This is exactly the kinds of advertising appeal that you’ll see in pulp magazines at the time…And as you read it through 1917, 1918 and so forth, there’s a sense that we have to  keep making this more thrilling, more exciting, more vivid because readers are gonna be bored and they’ve seen these images before.”


Not everyone was comfortable with the Red Cross’ embrace of sensationalism. In 1917, one of the group’s field representatives — a guy named Robert Scott — was working to establish a new chapter in Alaska. The stakes were high — Americans were fighting, starving, and dying in the Great War, and the Red Cross was desperate for support on the homefront.


Red Cross x2

Excerpt from an American Red Cross Magazine description of a battlefield in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution.

So Scott went to where the crowds were: keeping warm in the local movie theater. But the audience wasn’t moved by his descriptions of the front lines — really, it was nothing compared to the bloody, violent movie they’d just seen.


“So in a sense, what he was concerned about here was he was trying to rile up an audience, get them to care about these horrifying events in Europe, to feed their compassion – but this audience had already been satiated by the time he came on.


It wasn’t simply that the movie was distracting people from the more important matter at hand. Scott was disturbed because the audience clearly found atrocity entertaining when they should have found it horrifying.


“And so his beef, I guess, with these new sensationalistic movies was that they seemed to be training people, conditioning audiences to respond to these images as forms of entertainment, rather than as something that should put them in touch with their compassionate instincts.”


But sensationalism paid off, for the Red Cross, at least. Between 1915 and 1919, the number of chapters in America grew from 145 to more than 3,700. During two National Red Cross Weeks in 1917 and 1918, 43 million Americans contributed 238 million dollars. As WWI came to an end, the American Red Cross was the country’s leading charity.


Like Scott, you might find it unsettling to think that people have to be convinced to care about each other — it betrays the idea that we’re inherently compassionate beings. And that there’s a danger we’ll get so caught up in the graphic-ness of pretend images that we’ll miss the suffering of real people.


But for Rozario, the perils of sensationalism don’t outweigh the potential good. Making charity organizations competitive with mass media, he says, is precisely what allowed humanitarian efforts to flourish in the 20th and 21st centuries.


You know you use the techniques that you have and the cultural strategies that are available to you to try to serve the causes that you most believe in. Once you’ve got people’s attention, hopefully the educational part kicks in. Once you’ve got people caring about the issue, then you can start to really fill in the background.

You can read Kevin Rozario’s article about sensationalism and charity here, and listen to our entire episode on charity here.

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