Charity advertising – time for change?

Deborah Adesina Researcher and Media, Communications and Development Consultant. 13th March 2024


Deborah Adesina and David Girling from the University of East Anglia, recently published an important piece of research, Charity Representations of Distant Others, looking at the images used in charity advertising. The research raises some important issues for charities working in international development. We invited Deborah Adesina to reflect on her findings.

Our research set out to explore whether charity adverts have changed in recent years and what kind of characters are represented in their fundraising campaigns. We analyzed 541 images, collected from 363 charity adverts placed in 17 UK national weekend newspapers over a 6-month period in 2021. We then compared this data to an earlier similar study done in 2005/6.

Images of women and children traditionally dominate charity fundraising

Previously, children and women have dominated charity images as the main characters for their fundraising appeals. Several studies across academia and in the development sector have shown this tactic to be problematic for its contribution to misrepresenting developing countries as infantile or feminine. 

Our study found a significant reduction in the dominance of women and children in charity messaging from 72% in 2005/6 to 50% as of 2021. Also noteworthy is the inclusion of more images depicting leaders from the developing world: 20% of all images depicted majority world leaders compared to 15% developed world leaders.

Charities are beginning to broaden the range of images that they use

Slowly but surely, INGOs are beginning to use images that offer a more nuanced representation of their beneficiaries in ways that highlight their agency and portray them as capable and complicit in the story of development and progress. 

Yet the images also show that stereotypical narratives remain, as women/girls continue to be depicted in roles and responsibilities that reiterate traditional expectations of their confinement to domestic spaces.

Christian Aid insert in the Guardian, 11/4/2021

Images from rural Africa continue to feature prominently

We found that over half of the images (56%) supporting international causes focused on countries in Africa. Many of these images are set in villages and feature children, women and children, in passive modes. This constant spotlight on African countries in charity fundraising appeals, inadvertently reinforces historical stereotypes of underdevelopment that equates Africa with poverty. 

Number of images from across the world

The importance of captions to contextualise images

Our study also examined the general practices of British INGOs. Regarding captioning, out of 541 images, 399 (74%) included the name of the country within the supporting text. The specific city or village was mentioned in 32% of the adverts and the region in 26%. 

Contextualising the location used in charity images is not only a matter of geographical information. Proper captioning guarantees that any use and re-use of images is appropriate to context, thereby minimising risk to contributor as well as any reputational risk resulting from inappropriate re-use of images. 

Many charity adverts fail to name the people who feature in them 

Similarly, we found that 55% of characters are named, leaving 45% nameless. Although there are practical considerations/limitations e.g. images including large number of characters where it is not possible to name every single person, or where the character has deliberately not been named to protect their identity. 

Even so, naming is encouraged as it humanises people, helping to create intimacy and attachment rather than rendering them as mere props for charity messaging.

Charities have made significant changes – but there is more work to be done

Overall, charities have come a long way from heavier critiques of using shock tactics, dehumanization, and employing images of suffering to evoke emotions. As evidenced by ongoing industry-wide discussions, publication of codes of conduct, and updating of ethical guidelines and policies, the sector is making strides to decolonize narratives and address damaging stereotypes. 

Yet, there is even more work to be done, and the subject of (mis)representing distant others remain relevant. It is important that communications professionals continue to consider the potential damage of the stories they tell in fundraising adverts. Although the results of this study show some positive changes there is still scope for more significant improvements across the landscape of charity communications. 

Contributor-led storytelling can help to reset unequal power dynamics 

Many charities have used participatory or contributor-led storytelling in some of their longer form communications such as videos on YouTube. Contributor-led storytelling is one practical approach to resetting unequal power dynamics by fostering a sense of ownership and agency over beneficiaries’ narratives on their terms. 

Centring the perspectives and voices of those with the lived experience of the issues at hand promotes authenticity and provides supporters a more nuanced understanding of complex issues from an insider view. It humanizes cold data, putting faces and voices to abstract concepts and drives more meaningful engagement. 

While doing so though, communication professionals must remain wary of participatory communications activities that merely tick the ‘looking good’ PR box without actually empowering beneficiaries in the decision-making process.  

Our published report only presents initial findings. We welcome scholars, researchers, and practitioners to engage with this dataset available at www.charity-advertising.co.uk, to challenge our findings, and to uncover new insights that will enrich our understanding of charity advertising representations.

Deborah Adesina is co-author of the report, Charity Representations of Distant Others 

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