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The Power of Guilt

Eric J. Plosky

A couple of weeks ago, I got a mailing from March of Dimes, a charity that fights to prevent birth defects. The included form letter was a standard donation request, but also in the envelope were 50 or so self-adhesive return-address stickers, each bearing my name and address (and a portrait of a bird). I don’t remember if this was actually said or merely implied, but the resulting message was, “Here’s a gift for you. Now, are you going to be a schmuck and just keep the stickers, or are you going to do the right thing and give us a few bucks for them?”

Guilt! It’s a complex emotion, but as March of Dimes cleverly illustrates it is simple to invoke and very easy to profit (or non-profit) from. Once you make someone feel guilty, his pockets are open to you. Even I, a cynical New Yorker, was prodded into donating a few bucks. I mean, could I use the March of Dimes address labels in good conscience if I didn’t donate? Can I possibly sit calmly, affixing a free address label to my outgoing and probably decadent credit-card bill, while babies around the country are born defective for want of my teensy donation? Of course not.

Parents and grandparents have successfully employed guilt for eons in order to manipulate their offspring. Mothers and grandmothers, especially, are masters of the guilt trip. Every one of us understands this, but for those that need a reminder, just watch a “Seinfeld” episode that features Jerry’s or George’s parents. Or just think of your own parents, who are probably right now waiting by the phone for you to call.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May, some time during the 1950s, had a great little comedy sketch along those lines, a telephone conversation in which May played Nichols’ mother. Nichols, a young scientist, places a call home a few days after the call was expected. “Uh, how are you, Mom?” asks Nichols hesitantly. “Not too good,” replies May; “I haven’t eaten in three days.” “Why not?” asks Nichols in alarm. Replies May exhaustedly: “I didn’t want to be away from the phone and miss your call.”

A lot of television advertising tries to parlay guilt into charitable donations. A famous example is Sally Struthers’s “Feed the Children” campaign, in which the actress pleaded with television viewers to donate a nickel a day to feed an impossibly cute victim of foreign famine. How could a feeling person, surrounded by frivolous potato chips on a comfortable sofa, resist such advertising? (Actually, many people have pointed out that Struthers’s obesity reduced their own guilt -- a grotesquely overweight spokeswoman for famine victims, the story goes, eliminated any sympathy they might have had for the cause.)

Still, guilt is usually quite effective, so much so that it’s beginning to appear in regular corporate advertising. Some long-distance telephone ads actually say “Call your mother.” Even Star Market has taken to putting smiley-face stickers on bread loaves that say, “Try me -- I’m on sale!” To me, an admittedly more sensitive and emotional person than most, the sale stickers make the bread loaves seem as though they are desperately crying out for attention. Another guilt trip.

I was in Madrid five years ago and saw, on a shelf in a porcelain shop, three lovely little yellow smiling chicks. They looked so happy all together that I decided to make a purchase. How many figurines did I buy? All three. I couldn’t buy just one or two, because that would break up the bunch -- and then how long would they all smile? It was guilt that induced me to buy the whole flock, guilt at the thought of separating one from its family (or at leaving only one behind).

As far as guilt and charity advertising go, the real vexer is that it’s impossible even to object to guilt being used in ads. Guilt is so insidious that objectors are actually made to feel guilty for objecting to it in the first place. “I object to the tone of the Feed the Children television ad campaign because it preys upon viewers’ feelings in order to... in order to...” Well, in order to feed the children. Now, how can you object to that without sounding like a coldhearted monster or a Republican extremist?

There remains a question concerning the difference between guilt and sympathy. It is easier to feel sympathetic than guilty; the latter emotion implies some halfhearted personal involvement that, because of a lack of determination, failed to resolve the crisis at hand. Of the two, guilt is the more powerful motivator. That is why ads that say “Look at all this famine suffering -- won’t you please help?” are much less effective than those that exclaim, “Millions are dying of starvation because you’re too cheap and lazy, and too busy crunching on Olestra, to write us a five-buck check, you stupid fat bastard!”

Only in an ideal world, I suppose, would it be unnecessary to use guilt as a shill. For in an ideal world, there would be no famine and no suffering, no squabbling and no wanting. It’s really quite a fascinating concept, and I’d love to talk more about it -- but I promised I’d give my mom a call.