SmileTrain leads the way – but to where?

9 February, 2010

I feel slightly uneasy when I see those large (sometimes full-page) advertisements in newspapers or magazines for SmileTrain, the charity that is dedicated to solving the problem of cleft lip and palate in developing countries, and of which the great and the good are professed supporters. The photographs they use are invariable of young children with faces sadly distorted by their affliction.

My discomfort is partly due to the “in your face” nature of the advertisements, which pulls at the heartstrings and wrenches the stomach at the same time. Yes, I know that’s the point of the ads: why should I be shielded from the brutality and unfairness of the world, and particularly the Third World?

The calculation is presumably that readers (viewers?) will feel sufficiently moved, or sufficiently guilty, to make a payment and salve their conscience. This is the same calculation that determines that the most successful beggars are those with visible deformities. Remember the gangleaders in Slumdog Millionaire who deliberately blinded young kids to ensure their success as beggars?

My discomfort is also partly due to the fact there is just such a lot of these advertisements, to the extent that it’s not safe to open any periodical these days without these gruesome pictures looming up and causing one to turn the page with some haste. So the other thing I always reflect on when I see these ads is the enormous cost of running them; SmileTrain must be spending millions on advertising, and elbowing out other charities who are chasing our hard-earned money.

I have no doubt that what SmileTrain is doing is worthy, and if they used a more understated style of advertising, and less of it, presumably they would raise less money. But what’s to stop another charity engaging in competitive blitzkrieg on our emotions and our chequebooks by mounting even more shocking and more ubiquitous advertisements? In a world of shrinking incomes and compassion fatigue, charities might feel the need to go on the offensive. Where would it all end?

I’m not sure there’s a solution to this.

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