July 17, 2023

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The Power of a Sad Face: Using Facial Analysis to Predict Charity Donations

In today’s charitable landscape, numerous organizations compete for donors and their contributions. Given the brief time-period – typically a minute and a half – that charities have to make an impact through their advertisements, it becomes a strategic challenge to present a message that triggers action. This post dives into a recent study that we carried out, employing our web-based facial expression analysis tool, FaceReader Online, to explore which emotions can influence donation behavior.

The Experiment

We enlisted 83 participants for the study. Out of these, we included 57 individuals based on certain criteria, such as consistency in participation, high-quality recordings, serious engagement, and high attention scores. A unique new feature in FaceReader Online is its ability to gauge participant attention by tracking head position—lower scores are assigned to those whose faces are not directed at the screen.

The levels of attention observed among participants
The levels of attention observed among participants

Our experiment involved two charity commercials about children’s malnutrition — one with a positive spin and another with a negative one. Participants watched both while we recorded their facial expressions via FaceReader Online. After each ad, they shared their emotions, likelihood to donate (rated on a scale from one to five) and the hypothetical donation they might give to the charity (they had to distribute 20 euros between the two charities).

Examples of charity ads with positive messaging, alongside the measured valence (positive emotions) from viewers.
Examples of charity ads with positive messaging, alongside the measured valence (positive emotions) from viewers
Example of charity ads with negative messaging, alongside the measured valence (positive emotions) from viewers
Example of charity ads with negative messaging, alongside the measured valence (positive emotions) from viewers

This virtual experiment was carried out in the comfort of the participants’ own homes, where they had to fill out a Qualtrics survey in which FaceReader Online was embedded using JavaScript.

The findings

We found that negative advertisements encouraged larger potential donations than positive ones. Moreover, viewers remembered more details when the advertisement was negative. But here’s the most striking revelation: the more pronounced a viewer’s sad facial expression was while watching the advertisements, the greater their inclination to donate. Emotional contagion — defined as feeling the emotion that is displayed — was also found to be correlated with their likelihood to donate.

So, what does this all boil down to? Negative charity ads seem to be more effective in driving donations, and viewers have a higher likelihood of donating if the ad invokes the expression of sadness on their faces.

Differences in the effect of advertisement types on facial expressions and recall
Differences in the effect of advertisement types on facial expressions and recall

This study also demonstrates how the attention measure in FaceReader Online can help in assessing participant engagement. It showcases how FaceReader Online can serve as a powerful tool in measuring the impact of commercials.

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