An individual’s likelihood to donate to charity – and the amount they donate – depends on whether they feel superior or inferior to others, which has implications for charity advertising strategies, according to new study co-authored at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Given that most charity advertisements focus on 'benefits to others' rather than to oneself, the study suggests that many of these ads may be ineffective in motivating people to give when they are feeling worse off than others

Eric Levy

Suppose a cancer charity’s advertisement that says “Making strides toward a world with more birthdays” was changed to say “Making strides toward giving you more birthdays.” Would this influence your likelihood to donate? A new study argues that it does – depending on whether you are comparing yourself favourably or unfavourably to other people.

The first advert (the actual ad copy used by the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life), which focuses on giving the world more birthdays, would be more effective if you feel relatively better off than others (a “downward comparison”). This is because people making downward comparisons are more likely to give as a means of expressing altruistic values, such as to give back and be a better person. In contrast, people who feel inferior in some way (an “upward comparison”) are more likely to give in order to benefit themselves – to give oneself more birthdays, in this example.

In a study published online in Journal of Consumer Psychology, Professor Ann Schlosser of Foster School of Business, University of Washington, and Dr Eric Levy of the University of Cambridge Judge Business School found that those making downward and upward comparisons differ in how willing they are to help in order to benefit others’ lives.

These results have important implications, because, depending on whether an advert’s target segment feels generally better or worse off than others, charities should craft their appeals to emphasise benefits to others or individuals, respectively – and this context is critical to the success of a charitable appeal, the study found.

“For charities, the study finds that adverts highlighting the altruistic reasons for giving, such as how giving would benefit others, would be more likely to appeal to people who feel in a relatively good position in their lives,” says Dr Levy, University Lecturer in Marketing at Cambridge Judge. “This can help charities target their ads far more effectively.

“Given that most charity advertisements focus on 'benefits to others' rather than to oneself, the study suggests that many of these ads may be ineffective in motivating people to give when they are feeling worse off than others. So charity managers should seek to ascertain if their target audience feels worse off than others, and if so say something like ‘help improve air quality so you can live a healthier life’ rather than ‘help improve air quality so people around the world can live healthier lives’.”

Although there has been six decades of research on “comparison theory,” the direction of comparison as a predictor of people’s willingness to give had previously been little explored, the paper said.

The paper is based on four separate but related experimental tests on hundreds of people, including undergraduate students as well as non-students.

In one test, students were told that their job prospects were easier (prompting downward comparison) or worse (prompting upward comparison) to another group of college students. The students were then shown volunteering opportunities that emphasised benefits to others (”help those less fortunate by giving to those who need it”) or self-benefit (“build connections by networking with local business and community leaders”). The result: “Those in the downward (vs. upward) condition were more willing to help when the ad used an other-benefit appeal.”

Another of the four studies showed that those making downward comparisons gave more money than a no-comparison control group, while those making upward comparisons gave marginally less.

Across the four studies, the researchers consistently found that downward comparisons increase individuals’ willingness to give when the context explicitly states or implies that giving will benefit others.

Reference
Ann E. Schlosser and Eric Levy. Helping others or oneself: How direction of comparison affects prosocial behaviour. Journal of Consumer Psychology; 22 Feb 2016; DOI: doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2016.02.002

Adapted from a press release from the Cambridge Judge Business School


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