The Wrong Appeal to Guilt Can Justify Guilty Behavior

May 15, 2015


A logical, deserved and well intentioned appeal to guild (a fundraising effort by an internet radio station) might actually make you feel less guilty.


Earlier today I was listening to one of the stations on commercial free, listener-supported Soma FM. Between songs they went into an appeal for donations and suddenly I started feeling really guilty.

Why? Because even thought I knew it was listener supported, loved the programming and had been listening for years I had never donated anything. Now I was starting to feel really lousy about it and was thinking about making a donation.

The appeal continued with something like:


Less than 10% of Soma FM listeners...


Oh no! Social proof! I knew what was coming next! They were going to exacerbate my guilt and self loathing by pointing out that less than 10% of listeners are deadbeats like me. They were going to point out that I was part of a tiny group of freeloaders that took advantage of the generosity of the vast majority of decent people that actually paid for something they enjoyed and appreciated. They were going to stress the small size of this despicable group and use social proof to make me feel even worse!

But that is when things backfired – they finished the sentence like this:


Less than 10% of Soma FileMaker listeners ever contribute.


Whoa! That changed everything!

No longer was I part of a small, despicable minority. I was now part of the very large majority that chose not to pay. There is safety in numbers so how wrong could I really be? Clearly most people approached this station much like me.

And, come to think of it, why in hell would I contribute now knowing that almost nobody else did? Why would I spend my money to finance free radio for a bunch of deadbeats? This appeal to guilt was backfiring horribly – social proof was now working in reverse.

The approach made sense, at least on a logical level. Presumably the people at Soma FM assumed that drawing attention to just how little listener support they actually received would make the situation appear suitably dire, and prompt more people to donate.

Unfortunately we're not always logical, and what people would tend to take away from a claim like the one like Soma FileMaker made is that it's OK to listen and not donate, because that is what almost everyone else does. It also draws attention to the fact the by donating you are also subsidizing the listening pleasure of a lot of deadbeats.

It would be more effective to stress that most people do pay, but it seems that would be dishonest. They would still probably be better off stressing that they are viable only because of the generosity of "a great many" listeners – making you want to be a part of that group, and not one of the free loaders.

Category: Selling

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