Buyer Beware: Exploitative Advertising Practices or "Poverty Porn"

This is the fourth post in a series called Buyer Beware on business models I generally don't support. Make sure to check for updates to see more on this topic. Read about One-for-Ones here. Read about Covert Missionary Operations here. Read about Direct Sales Models here.
poverty porn and exploitation in advertising
Before I continue with today's post, I want to clarify a few things with you all. Firstly, I appreciate the discourse this series has created. It's tricky to navigate potentially heated conversations on the internet with people you barely know, and I want to thank those of you who have commented for sticking with your convictions without dismissing me as a human being. I hope my responses have been perceived as gracious, as well, even if we continue to disagree.

More than anything, I think we must, at the very least, talk about these things. 


They must be public and vocalized. Because if we don't allow ourselves to process potential pitfalls of a given strategy or model, we can't be sure we know what we're supporting. Regardless of where we land, it's fruitful that we've talked it out.

Secondly, I intentionally use the phrase, Buyer Be Wary, as a means of clarifying my position toward the companies and models I call out. I'm not necessarily advocating a complete boycott of a company just because it uses a strategy or framework that I find potentially damaging or misleading, I'm simply suggesting that we attempt to fully understand the pros and cons of a business model before we become an advocate of it.

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Today's issue is harder to pin on one company or business model, because one could argue that advertising is inherently exploitative, if not to the subject, than to the target audience. 


That being said, I'll break it down from both perspectives: 1. advertising that misleads or exploits the viewer, and 2. advertising that exploits the beneficiary (in charity and social enterprise advertising, a marketing angle that highlights the poor, suffering beneficiary is often termed poverty porn.).


ADVERTISING THAT EXPLOITS THE TARGET AUDIENCE

Poverty porn tells donors that because of their position in society and because of their resources they have the ability to be the saviors in vulnerable communities they might know nothing about. It fails to awaken Western audiences to the mutual need for transformation they share with their poor brothers and sisters and instead perpetuates dangerous paternalism (Huffington Post).

It's a well known fact that advertising strategies routinely prey on our insecurities to sell us products. Buy the deodorant so you won't be socially ostracized. Wash your face with this product to make those unsightly blemishes go away. We see it all the time in women's beauty and lifestyle ads.

But when it comes to ethical enterprises, I think we're less likely to put our guards up because we assume that a company who cares about its workers and the earth would have adopted a "do no harm" marketing strategy, as well. But ethical companies aren't perfect, and their good intentions sometimes get muddled by a very real need to grow their business.

Instead of preying on our superficial insecurities, however, they prey on our guilt.


Case in point: a couple of months ago, a fair trade company ran an Instagram campaign with the tagline 5000 Followers = A House. The copy went on to say that the company would give a home to one of their employees who was raising 5 children in a house with no door only if the brand reached 5,000 Instagram followers.

Do you see what I see here?


The problem with this strategy is that it not only suggested that the well being of a woman in need was completely dependent on egocentric likes and follows, but that it put the onus on the individual viewer to do whatever was needed to ensure she wasn't left hanging. Any person with a heart would hurry up and follow the account just to make sure the waiting was over! For that reason, I would define this strategy as highly coercive.

Not to mention the fact that the campaign was misleading. I spoke with a representative from the company after seeing the post and she clarified that the employee in question would receive the house regardless of the result of the advertising campaign. Desperate for growth, they felt that the tie-in could kill two birds with one stone. 

In this scenario, the representative and her Insta-allies were all well meaning, lovely people. But because they didn't consider the implications of their advertising angle, they betrayed the trust of loyal followers and inadvertently discouraged bystanders like me, their target audience, from fully buying into their mission.

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ADVERTISING THAT EXPLOITS THE BENEFICIARY


A starving child with a puffed up stomach in a barren landscape. A smiling woman in indigenous dress behind her loom. Barefoot children playing soccer, or heading to school. If you've been interested in social enterprises long enough - and maybe even if you haven't - you've seen these images.

There is nothing wrong with portraying the realities and diversity of life across the globe, but it's important that we're seeing eye to eye. 


...we need to pause and ask ourselves whether it is ethical to depict the graphic qualities of a human being to Western audiences for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional experience and ultimately, money. It is a practice called poverty porn, and it does almost nothing to address the real structural problem of poverty...Poverty porn objectifies its subjects, defining them by their suffering and stripping them of the vital components of all human life — agency, autonomy and unlimited potential (Huffington Post).

Unfortunately, I still see an abundance of imagery burdened by the Western gaze. If you're going to show me a picture of someone, tell me their name. Tell me their story. Let them speak for themselves. If you're going to take a picture of a child, get their parent's permission! People who look, and live, differently from us are not on display, regardless of whether their lives have been wrought with tragedy or banality. We can help people in need without making a spectacle out of them. And we should be just as happy to buy into companies that simply use industry best practices as we are to support enterprises that employ survivors or provide educational and medical support.


After all, fair wages and humane treatment are human rights, not rites of passage only after tragedy strikes. 


Tavie from MadeFAIR speaks well on this subject in her essay, Why Pity is a Bad Marketing Angle:

This subject is viscerally irritating to me because my mother came to the United States as a genocide survivor. Close friends, family, and pushy strangers know about our family’s history, but it’s a fact I don’t usually publicize on popular blogs. That’s because besides being a “survivor,” she is an expert seamstress, talented designer, international volunteer, and a hard-working mother of two strong-minded daughters. She never put “genocide survivor” on her resume. 
The most damaging aspect of pity is how it perpetuates a colonial dichotomy between maker and buyer. The makers are from the “Third World” or “developing” nation, while the buyer is from the “First World” or “developed” nation. Those terms are outdated and create a hierarchy that turns the West into the paragon of society who can force its values on other countries. Framing a marketing campaign around adversity exploits the maker and manipulates the buyer. Pity solicits a knee-jerk response that may work once, but isn’t sustainable if a business wants to retain customers.

Every company on my personal Buyer Be Wary list is guilty of more than one offense, and all of them get a low grade for avoiding advertising that exploits the beneficiary and the target audience. In fact, I have it on good authority that a particular one-for-one shoe brand writes off their shoe donations as an advertising expense. If that's not telling, I don't know what is. 

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as ethical marketing. Marketing-Schools.org defines it as "less of a marketing strategy and more of a philosophy that informs all marketing efforts. It seeks to promote honesty, fairness, and responsibility in all advertising." Strategically, it aims to build trust in both the quality of the product and the brand's intention to be transparent about the brand-customer relationship.

As companies like Nisolo*, MadeFAIR*, Everlane*, and Fair Indigo (there are many more!) can attest, it is totally unnecessary to manipulate and exploit for financial gain. Today's consumers seek authenticity and we respond well to simple, straightforward honesty. Tell us why the product is worth it. Don't mince words. Tell us about your employees, broadly or individually, but do it in a way that honors their time and talent.

TL;DR: Even ethical companies create ad campaigns that exploit and mislead. Their tactics are harmful to both the target audience and the beneficiary.

Additional Reading:

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Read Parts OneTwo, and Three.

Coming up in this series:


- Great Mission, Terrible Products


3 comments

  1. girl yes! I cannot ever get over when brands spend heaps of money on real models but then when they take pictures of their workers they don't seem to put any effort into helping them look their best. ALL women deserve to be photographed in a way that showcases their beauty, not their poverty.

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    1. That's a good point! Hannah at Life Style Justice brought another good point up on Instagram recently. We don't demand to see the tired faces of American workers, so why do we think it's necessary to expose and examine international workers in this way?

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