The Face of Need: Facial Emotion Expression on Charity Advertisements

Deborah A. Small and Nicole M. Verrochi
Journal of Marketing Research (JMR)
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Executive Summary
Pictures of victims on charity appeals attempt to elicit the reactions that engender sympathy and prosocial behavior. Research on the identifiable victim effect and the relative advantage of vivid over pallid information supports this notion. Pictures evoke emotion; however, the emotional response might depend on the nature of the picture. Certain picture attributes might more effectively appeal to sympathy than others.

In this article, the authors emphasize that facial expression of emotion displayed in pictures of victims is a critical determinant of sympathy and giving. Although there is much research on experienced emotion and prosocial behavior, no study to date has isolated the impact of emotion expression on prosocial behavior. This gap is noteworthy because of the need to understand responsiveness to charity appeals, which often feature photos of victims expressing emotion. Thus, this article’s primary contribution is to provide insight into how emotion expressions on advertisements influence consumers and their behavior.

The face, with its endlessly intriguing capability for communication, is believed to be the primary nonverbal channel for the communication of emotion. In addition to communicating information, facial expression of emotion elicits vicarious emotion in observers, a phenomenon called emotional contagion. Building on emotional contagion theory, the authors propose that people “catch” the emotions displayed on a face on a charity advertisement, an automatic form of empathy. To empathize with someone else’s negative feeling state is, in most cases, also to feel sympathetic toward that person. Therefore, it is argued that when a victim expresses sadness, an observer shares that pain. In turn, this emotional convergence of sadness facilitates sympathy and giving.

The five studies presented in this article empirically test the components of the proposed theory. Specifically, the authors predict and find that people are more sympathetic and give more to a charity when the victim portrayed on the advertisement expressed sadness than when a victim expressed happiness or neutral emotion. Moreover, people feel sadder when exposed to a sad-faced image and that their own sadness mediated the effect on sympathy, supporting an emotional contagion process. Finally, the authors find that the effects of sympathy are robust when people select their own exposure to advertisements and that only when the source of sadness is a victim’s expression does it increase sympathy but not when sadness is caused by an unrelated source. This provides further support for the notion that emotional convergence between victim and observer is critical for the process to unfold. Together, these studies illuminate the process by which emotion expressions embedded in advertisements systematically influence sympathy and prosocial behavior.

This research draws attention to a sympathy-generating attribute of charity appeals that has been neglected in theory and practice. It is the first attempt in the literature to isolate the impact of emotion expression on prosocial feelings and behavior and the first to examine emotional contagion effects from photographs on any kind of print advertisements. In summary, the authors illustrate when and how a sad expression enhances sympathy and giving. Taken together, the findings imply the importance of subtle emotional cues that sway sympathy and giving.

Deborah A. Small is Wroe Alderson Term Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Wharton School and is also a member of the Graduate Group of the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She received a PhD from Carnegie Mellon in Psychology and Behavioral Decision Research and a BS in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interfaces psychology and economics by exploring the role of emotion in both facilitating and hindering rational decision making. Professor Small studies many decision contexts, including charitable giving, terrorism, negotiation, and buyer and seller behavior.

Nicole M. Verrochi is presently a doctoral candidate in Marketing in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She is in her fourth year in the program and is focusing on consumer psychology. Verrochi’s research examines how people’s emotion and self-regulatory processes influence persuasion and consumption. She earned her BS in Economics (Marketing) and her BA (Fine Arts) from the University of Pennsylvania.

Journal of Marketing Research, Volume 46, Number 6, December 2009
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Deborah A. Small and Nicole M. Verrochi
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