Sometimes public service campaigns and charitable organizations use images of disfigured or disabled people to shock the public into desired behaviors. "If I don't watch out," we are supposed to think, "that could be me!" Or, perhaps the advertisement is supposed to evoke pity, and therefore, giving. In addition to the anti-smoking campaign featured in the photo above, one especially extreme example of such advertising includes a Texas drunk driving campaign featuring before and after photos of a severely burned young woman. Fortunately, many organizations are becoming more conscious of the way such advertising can cause unintended harm; the advertising for The Smile Train, for instance, has shifted from a focus on helpless "disfigured" children to representing the positive changes resulting from the pediatric cleft lip and palate surgery the organization sponsors in the developing world.
Although motives for such campaigns may be altruistic, the way people are represented can cause its own kind of damage. Many former "poster children" from historical fundraising campaigns like Jerry's Kids or the March of Dimes, for instance, believe now that the way they were exploited as children caused not only psychological, but also social damage. Indeed, "most … disabled people have come to find the poster child an oppressive symbol" (Shapiro 13), a point emphasized by sociologists Douglas Biklen, Robert Bogdan, and Burton Blatt. Teaching people to feel pity, fear, or horror in respect to these images, it is argued, creates a social environment where people who are perceived as "different" are excluded and oppressed. As activist and policy-maker Evan Kemp has put it,
These prejudices create stereotypes that offend our self-respect, harm our efforts to live independent lives and segregate us from the mainstream of society.
When we portray human beings as "monsters," we engage in an unthinking act of prejudice, teaching ourselves and each other to distance people who seem unlike ourselves, creating a poisonous atmosphere for those singled out and that endangers our society by failing to recognize the full diversity and ambiguity of humanity.
The depiction of physical difference is complicated when other prejudices come into play; sometimes racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of social fear and hatred are masked by a seemingly kind or helpful attitude. As Harlan Lane points out, "benevolence" can be used a tool of control, preventing people from asserting agency or exercising power over their own lives. Is it possible, then, that the public service and charitable campaigns referenced above support their mission by representing people of color, females, and "foreigners" as versions of a damaged humanity? As monsters, of a sort? How do you see these ads as possibly capitalizing on public feelings about gender, ethnicity, and skin color to operate on unspoken social fears?
Biklen, Douglas, Robert Bogdan, and Burton Blatt. “Label Jars, Not People.” Promise and Performance: Act's Guide to Tv Programming for Children. Ed. Maureen Harmonay. Cambridge, Mass: Ballinger, 1977. 3-10. Print.
Kemp, Evan (Jr.). “Aiding the Disabled: No Pity Please” The New York Times (3 Sept. 1981): x. Web.
Lane, Harlan L. The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.
Shapiro, Joseph P. "Tiny Tims, Supercrips, and the End of Pity." No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Times Books, 1993. 12-40. Print.