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  • Faculty & Research

    Knowledge creation on China, from proven China experts.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2021

How donors’ regulatory focus changes the effectiveness of a sadness-evoking charity appeal

By Jungsil Choi and Hyun Young Park

Charities are constantly analysing the effectiveness of various emotional appeals (primarily sadness, guilt and happiness) in their marketing approaches, hoping to create the optimal balance for soliciting donations from individuals. However, the expanding body of research on the matter continues to deliver inconsistent results, leaving the ‘just right’ level of emotional intensity hanging elusively out of reach.

Instead of using emotional intensity as a moderator on donors’ decisions to make charitable contributions, a recent study we conducted introduced regulatory focus (promotion vs prevention focus) as a moderating factor in response to different types of emotional appeals. Regulatory focus theory notes the difference in how individuals perceive and attain their goals, with prevention-focused individuals perceiving their goals as duties and obligations, while those with a promotion focus view goals as hopes and aspirations.

In the context of academics, for example, promotion-focused vs prevention-focused students studying to attain an A would perceive and approach the goal differently. Where promotion-focused students would perceive attaining an A as an accomplishment and would study beyond the assigned materials with eagerness, prevention-focused students would see getting an A as a responsibility or a security and would vigilantly focus on fulfilling (not missing out on) the grade requirements.

As part of our current study, we explored the moderating effect of regulatory focus across six main studies (each involving several hundred participants) and two supplementary studies. Each study involved participants being tested to determine their regulatory focus and randomly assigned to watch charity adverts that utilised different emotional appeals to solicit donations.

Our findings showed that donors with a prevention focus are more likely to be discouraged from charitable giving when solicited via a sadness-based appeal. However, we also found that donors’ regulatory focus does not affect their level or likeliness of giving when guilt or happiness appeals are employed.

Furthermore, we found that donors with a prevention focus were demotivated from donating when a sadness appeal was used, because it activated persuasion knowledge (i.e. the donor’s awareness and evaluation of the manipulative intent behind the charity appeal), increasing their scepticism and subsequently reducing their level of sympathy for potential victims and/or beneficiaries.

Our study also discovered that when persuasion knowledge is deactivated, donors with prevention focus are no longer demotivated from charitable giving (or are at least less demotivated), even if a sadness appeal is used as a call for donation. We tested two ways of deactivating persuasion knowledge; firstly by constraining donors’ cognitive capacity (by distracting them with a memory rehearsal task while watching the ad), and secondly by informing them that the charity in question had a reputation for reliability. The first part highlights potential ethical issues related to evoking sadness to raise donations, when we consider how much busier people are becoming and subsequently how their cognitive capacity may be frequently constrained. The second highlights the increasing importance of a charity’s credible reputation for reliability at a time when public concern over this issue is growing.

Our study offers significant practical contributions by examining how donors’ regulatory focus influences their response to charitable appeals. For one, charities that are able to determine if donors are prevention focused (via text-mining and other emerging individual-level data analysing technologies) can avoid targeting them with a sadness appeal, boosting the efficacy of their message and minimising donor scepticism.

Additionally, charities can increase the effectiveness of their sadness-evoking ads by directly manipulating promotion focus in their message, while avoiding the elicitation of prevention focus. For instance, they may emphasise promotion-focused goals or benefits (e.g. helping victims accomplish their dreams), rather than prevention-focused goals or benefits (e.g. ensuring the safety of the victims).

The findings also demonstrate ineffectiveness of sadness appeals when targeting prospective donors from an Eastern culture who tends to be prevention oriented, compared to donors from Western culture who tends to be promotion oriented.

Finally, this study can be of practical use to policymakers and regulatory authorities looking to determine whether it is ethical for charities to target increasingly busy prospective donors with sadness-evoking ads.

This article refers to a paper entitled, “How donor's regulatory focus changes the effectiveness of a sadness-evoking charity appeal,” published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing here.

Jungsil Choi is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Cleveland State University. Hyun Young Park is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at CEIBS. For more on her teaching and research interests, please visit her faculty profile here.

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