Taking ADvantage
Give Until It Hurts: Altruism and Advertising


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 3 June 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.

Two men sit at the bar, enjoying a beer. A commercial comes on the TV behind the bar and the announcer says that for every bottle and can sold the brewery will give five cents to charity. The two men turn to the camera and lift their beers in a salute.


Pictures flash on the screen: a little girl, dressed in rags and sitting on a filthy mattress on the floor, gazes up forlornly into the camera; a starving child, its belly distended from malnutrition, its face covered with sores and flies, lies too ill and exhausted to cry; ragged children play in muddy streams that are no more than open sewers. The announcer says that, for a few cents a day, these children can get food, medicine, shelter, clothes. New pictures flash on the screen: happy, well-dressed, well-fed children. The screen displays the address and phone number to give money.

# Millions of American depend on this doctor's research, but only if the rainforests survive. Thus, if you want to stay alive, save the forests.

Altruism in Advertising

The last, and weakest, of the psychological appeals used in advertising is altruism, the giving of oneself with no thought or expectation of a return, or, as Edward O. Wilson defines it, "self-destructive behavior performed for the benefit of others." When using the appeal you are telling your audience, "Listen to me, you'll give of yourself with nothing in return."

The greatest difficulty in using altruism as an appeal is that it doesn't really exist. Although it is considered one of the greatest of human virtues, biologically and psychologically it is actually enlightened self-interest, not an act of selflessness. Since this is counter to what most people like to believe about themselves, I'll discuss this is some depth.

First, what do people give of themselves? The answer is: just about anything. The most common thing they give is money. As you recall, money is a representation of resources such as food, water, and shelter that allow those resources to be transported into the future. Thus, what people give to others are the resources they have gathered for themselves. They give money to their church, synagogue, temple, mosque, etc.; to the poor, the homeless, the starving, the sick, etc.; to retinitis pigmentosa, cancer research, kidney research, birth defect research, SIDS, AIDS, MS and MDA. People also give their time and effort as volunteers, hospital aides, assisting children, the poor and the elderly. In extreme cases, people even give their own lives, dying that others might live. Parents give their lives for their children, police and fire personnel for their communities, soldiers for their countries.

It appears in each of these cases that the people give while receiving nothing in return. However, they actually do get something back, although that return may not be obvious. It is the concept of reciprocal altruism, best exemplified by the old adage, "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."

Reciprocal altruism may sound like an oxymoron. How can giving of yourself with no thought or expectation of return imply getting everything back again? The answer lies in how the return manifests itself. It can be in the form of a material return, a sense of self-esteem, or a sense of security.

Material Return

Material return would be a payment of some kind for the altruistic act. The payment may be in the form of a tax deduction for donations to charity or a religious organization. In such cases, it isn't true altruism -- it's "cast your bread upon the waters -- it shall return to you a thousandfold," and what keeps chain letters going, better known as self-interest: the act results in a material gain.


Many people feel better about themselves after they help someone else. This may raise their self-esteem. For some men, it may give them a sense of superiority over those they help, placing them in a higher place in the hierarchy. For many women, it may give them a sense of connection with those they help.

Sense of Security

The true basis of reciprocal altruism is the sense of security that it may bring. When you do something for someone else, there is often a sense that, at some future time, that person will help you in turn. Add to that the human extension of self-preservation to family, friends, community and nation, and the length of human memory, and people will do things for strangers, feeling that strangers will eventually do something for them or their descendants.

In addition, followers of religions that proclaim good deeds improve their chances at a good afterlife may feel that their acts are noted by their deity. Thus, altruism leads to a reward in heaven, creating a sense of security for the future.


On the surface, it may seem that altruism is contrary to the usual biological imperatives of self-preservation, reproduction or greed. Being altruistic may mean dying for others, foregoing your own chances at having or raising young, or giving away your resources. However, mathematical models of altruistic behavior show that such behavior is, in the long run, more beneficial for the individual's genetic (if not personal) survival than strict selfishness is. "Acts of apparent altruism are instead attributed chiefly to kin selection. The mother bird slowly flutters from the fox, one wing bent as if broken, in order to lead the predator away from her brood. She may lose her life, but multiple copies of very similar genetic instructions will survive in the DNA of her chicks. A cost-benefit analysis has been made. The genes dictate to the outer world of flesh and blood with wholly selfish motives, and real altruism -- self-sacrifice for a non-relative -- is deemed a sentimental illusion." (Sagan and Druyan, 1992, p. 112) This, of course, is reciprocal altruism. (Wispe, 1978)

Many animals practice altruism. For example, the marmot gathers in interrelated groups. Some of the members of the group act as lookouts, placing themselves in potential danger in order to give timely warning. Others act as nannies, foregoing having their own young to raise other group members' young. Among wolves and wild dogs, only the alpha male and female have pups; the other members of the pack work to raise them.

Note that the animals that practice altruism are social animals, those that gather in mutually supportive groups. Loners, such as dik dik antelope and gibbons, or herd animals such as gnus and elephant seals, are rarely altruistic since these animals are rarely mutually supportive.(1)

Social animals are usually interrelated and participate in cooperative activities. That is, several generations of parents and young live together and, more importantly, work together to better exploit their niche in the environment. Cooperative behavior is more efficient than selfish behavior in gathering resources. (see Chapter 8 for discussion)

Occasionally, an animal will behave in what is an apparently altruistic manner for a total stranger, sometimes not even of its own species. For example, the honey seeker bird of Africa will lead a human to a bee hive, pausing and looking back to be sure it's being followed. Such behavior would be altruism if it weren't for the fact that the bird is actually getting someone else to do the work that it finds difficult -- getting the honey out of the hive. Usually, in return for the bird's help in finding the hive, the human will give the bird a share of the honey. Thus, the bird is actually being selfish -- doing a little of the work, and leaving the hard part for someone else to do, for a disproportionate share of the rewards.

Of course, in any society that practices reciprocal altruism, there will be those individuals that take advantage of the system. That is, they take but never return. However, this is usually self-correcting, particularly in those animals that have long memories; "cry wolf" too often, and no one comes to your aid, since it destroys the mutual trust that a society depends on to exist. Such selfish individuals can be ostracized, banished, or even destroyed for taking advantage of and thus disrupting the system.


Note that most of what I said in the above biological discussion of altruism came down to how it affects the society in which it is practiced. This is because, without a society, there can be no altruism, since it presupposes someone in a group helping someone else in that group, and that someone else returning the favor at some future time. And mutually supportive individuals is a definition of a society.

It is when we come to humans that the social basis of altruism truly comes into its own. Humans have the most complex and interdependent societies (as far as we know) of any creature on earth. Human societies extend far beyond our immediate families, or groups, or tribes. We extend them to entire regions, nations, and even the entire human race.

For example, a common appeal to the altruistic in humans is to donate to famine relief, which includes donating food, medicine, clothing, farming implements, education, etc.. These appeals are usually to so-called "First World" nations, those that have a high standard of living, are in little danger of starvation, are technologically advanced, such as Western European and Pacific Rim nations, the United States and Canada. Such nations have the resources to give part of them to "Third World" nations. Clearly, Third World nations have little, and little possibility, of giving anything back to First World nations -- if they had much, they wouldn't have need. Why, then would people in rich nations give resources to poor? Does it contradict the idea of reciprocal altruism, and show pure altruism?

The latter is possible. People, being human, may have so highly developed a social sense that "every man is my brother." That is, they feel empathy for anyone, no matter whom. However, people, being animals, also rarely do something for nothing. As stated above, those that help others will usually expect, consciously or subconsciously, a return in terms of a material return, an increase in self-esteem, or a sense of security.

How could donations to people in a country thousands of miles away, people that the donors would never meet, that would never have the resources or the ability to do something for the donors, be appealing to the donors? Well, there could be a material return: many Third World Nations are poor in resources that support human life, such as food and water, but rich in resources that support an economic life, such as oil, metals, and minerals.

Certainly, there could be a return in terms of self-esteem, as the donor feels good about rherself for having helped those less fortunate. There can even be a sense of security, since many Third World nations act as buffers between antagonistic First World countries, or aiding the people of a country can bring that country, and thus its resources and international support, into a First World country's sphere of influence and keep it out of an "enemy's."

Do any of the above enter a potential donor's conscious consideration of whether or not to donate? I would venture to say, no. Nonetheless, they can definitely be a subconscious motivation.


Altruism is contrary to the normal purpose of advertising, to convince the individual that acquiring a certain product or service will benefit that individual. Altruism is doing things for the benefit of others. For this reason, the use of altruism in advertising requires that it be linked with some other appeal, an appeal that shows how being altruistic benefits the individual. The stronger the linked appeal, the stronger altruism will appear.

The strongest appeals are self-preservation, sex and greed. Somewhat weaker, but still powerful, is self-esteem. There seems little likelihood of linking sex or greed to altruism, since they are both contrary to altruism. However, self-preservation and self-esteem both work well with altruism.

When linking self-preservation to altruism, the ad will imply that giving of yourself now will result in helping you later. For example, ads promoting donations to disease research show people that have the disease but are being helped by the research, and suggest that more research will lead to a cure. The ads also imply that you, the potential donor, are susceptible to the disease, and that your donation will help ensure that, when you get it, you can be cured. Thus, the scenes of victims and words say that you should help the afflicted ("give 'till it hurts") and help yourself in the process ("so this doesn't happen to you"). Such appeals to self-preservation are rarely overt, but do provide an undertone to the ads.

Self-esteem, when linked with altruism, is a very subtle appeal. If you recall, for most men self-esteem is directly related to where he believes he fits in a hierarchy: the higher his relative position, the higher his self-esteem. Ads could say that helping others demonstrates his superiority to those others, but such an approach would run counter to most men's social sensibilities that say overt displays of superiority, better known as arrogance, are improper. For an altruistic appeal to men, linked to self-esteem, to work, it must appear that he is simply helping those less fortunate, rather than appearing that he is deigning to help. Deep down inside, he may feel a sense of superiority, but he can assuage his social conscience by telling himself that he's doing it out of a sense of fellowship.

Altruism is easier to link to self-esteem for women, since for many women self-esteem is related to a sense of connectedness rather than competition. Ads asking women to be altruistic can easily show how her actions can benefit others, gaining her their appreciation and even love. For example, ads asking for donations to help children in Third World countries emphasize how grateful the children will be, and how the children will write to express their appreciation. Pictures and ad copy personalize the children so they appear as individuals in need of her individual help, giving her a personal connection with a child, implying a closeness akin to that she has with her own children.

Of the other appeals (personal enjoyment, destructiveness, constructiveness, curiosity and imitation), only two can reasonably be linked with altruism, since the other three are fundamentally selfish and personal rather than selfless. Those two are constructiveness and imitation. Constructiveness can be linked to altruism through the concept of building a better world and world view. However, this better world is, subconsciously, not for the benefit of the recipients of the altruism, but for the donor. A better world improves the donor's chances for success since there is less likelihood of the recipients of rher altruism creating problems to alleviate distress; a better fed, educated, etc. population can work for the betterment of the world and, in consequence, the donor. The world view that altruism can instill in the minds of the recipients is one that accords with that of the donor: in return for the donor's aid, the recipient is expected to agree with the donor's world view. For example, Americans that donate to famine relief in Third World countries expect, at least subconsciously, that the receivers of that aid will work to be like Americans, politically and socially.(2) However, no matter how much it appears that altruism is being linked with constructiveness, deep down inside the mind of the consumer, it is still an appeal to self-preservation.

Imitation is rarely linked to altruism, but is still a possible supporting appeal. Imitation asks the consumer to be like someone or something else helping others. An example is an ad for famine relief for which Katherine Hepburn delivers the message. In this ad, there is the appeal to imitate Hepburn's compassion for the starving, sick children in poor countries. Hepburn's stature is such that imitating her could improve a contributor's self-esteem (note that the appeal is not just to imitation, but to the concomitants of imitation (see Chapter 14 for a discussion of the appeal of imitation)).


Altruism is the last and weakest of the psychological appeals. Its weakness lies in the fact that, in its pure form of self-destructive behavior for another's benefit, it doesn't exist. What does exist is reciprocal altruism, in which self-destructive behavior for another's benefit results in a return of one kind or another. Such behavior is evident in social animals throughout the animal kingdom.

It is clear is that, as an advertising appeal, altruism can't stand alone. It must be linked with one or more other appeals, preferably one of the strongest such as self-preservation or self-esteem. It is also clear that pure altruism is a rare, if not non-existent, quality. People that do self-destructive behavior for the benefit of others expect something in return. That the return is not material is irrelevant: the appeal can carry immaterial rewards. Nonetheless, since altruism appeals to the best in people as social creatures, advertising can use it to accomplish a great deal to improve people's lives and societies in general.


(1) Herd animals will attack predators in a group, but this is less being mutually supportive than taking advantage of safety in numbers. The more animals that attack a predator, the less likely the predator will be able to single out and kill a victim. In fact, when a victim has been singled out, the other members of the herd distance themselves. There is no sense of one animal giving its life that others may live.

(2) It sometimes comes as a surprise to contributors that people who receive their aid not only are not grateful and try to become like the contributors, but actually, and sometimes actively, resent the donors.

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