Foregrounding Adversity: Dissecting ‘Pathos,’ a Mode of Persuasion

Recently, while browsing the internet on my cell phone I was met with an advertisement. In it we see a young girl, in infancy, wrapped in what appears to be a hospital gown and placed on what we can assume to be a hospital bed. This young girl is implied to be in mid-wail, her mouth agape in anguish. Her eyes are clenched in pain and her hand is outstretched, perhaps searching for something to hold. She’s alone on the bed; neither parent nor doctor can be seen. She’s been given a name: “Mulla.”

Still: author

It struck me that the camera looks down on this girl. Spatially, the audience is instructed to literally “look down” on her – to pity her. The advertisement wants to place us in the position of a bedside hospital visitor. The open mouth, in particular, is powerful – do we pick her up and comfort her to end her crying, or do we walk away?

What’s more is the text that accompanies the image, which echoes a mother’s final desperate plea for relief: “Allah, please save my daughter,” it reads. Further down: “Please help.” It thus places the burden on us, the readers, to intervene and save a young girl’s life. This is what advertisers have deemed the “call to action” – the resonating directive to do a certain thing as soon as possible. The call here is strong because the advertisement unabashedly attempts to provoke a sympathetic response from the audience through its combination of text and photograph.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle called this appeal to emotion “pathos,” which is “[the] awakening [of] emotion in the audience so as to induce them to make the judgment desired” (Aristotle and Kennedy 119). Pathos is one of the three Aristotelian “modes of persuasion,” along with “ethos” (the appeal to expertise and endorsement) and “logos” (the appeal to statistics and facts), and of the three it is arguably the most potent (Aristotle and Kennedy 119). Some of the most effective campaigns in recent memory were driven by pathos: for American audiences, the Sarah McLachlan-narrated spot for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in which her song “Angel” is played over a montage of animals locked in cages has entered the collective cultural consciousness and has been parodied and referenced in other media numerous times. The fact of the matter is that the spot helped raise $30 million for the ASPCA within two years of being aired (Strom), which is a landmark achievement in non-profit fundraising.


Notice the similarities between the two approaches: the subjects, helpless creatures, are isolated and alone; the facial expressions are that of anguish; and the camera angles, the audience’s viewpoints into the respective narratives of adversity, are from above and angled downward, reinforcing the pity we are meant to feel and the power we have over their circumstances. Both are potent. I’m sure each elicited sympathy in you to some extent as well.

Research confirms this notion. Our human brains are hardwired to process emotions faster than conscious thoughts, so much so that “emotions process sensory input in only one-fifth the time our conscious, cognitive brain takes to assimilate that same input” (Hill 19). The response isn’t just quicker; it’s also stronger, such that “[the] emotional reaction to a stimulus resounds more loudly in our brain than does our rational response, triggering the action to follow” (Hill 19).  In a further study, researchers using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine found audiences use the “emotive” parts of the brain, rather than the logical, when evaluating brands (Murray). This is the basis of the emotional gut reaction you may have felt viewing the advertisements, the same gut reaction that propelled the ASPCA to immense success in their fundraising efforts.

As a result, visions of young people embroiled in tragedy and adversity are a common approach to advertising in the development sector. After all, it’s an easy sell: many NGOs work directly with and for people who, every day, face debilitating adversity, and it is important to convey to audiences what this adversity looks like, and to show the need for change. Notice how in each the camera is, again, always aimed downward at the subjects of the shots, forcing them to look up to you, the audience, implying in each a kind of longing gaze.


Sometimes this insistence on adversity, however, rings manipulative for audiences; it’s when the illumination of an issue becomes exploitation. It’s important to foreground adversity; what matters most is how this is accomplished within the interplay between organization and audience.


Crucial to the employment of pathos in advertising is the consideration of the role these emotions play in the larger narrative of the organization’s values. Misjudging the extent to which these emotions can be tapped into – or even which emotions to tap into – can lead to narrative media that feels calculated and inauthentic. In an oft-cited example, American insurance company Nationwide experienced severe backlash when it released a commercial that blindsided audiences with a last-second plot twist that revealed the young narrator of the commercial had actually been dead the whole time, the victim of a preventable accident. It was a shocking amplification of adversity that left many scratching their heads. (Miller)


In a conversation with Contently, Graeme Newell, the founder of 602 Communications, said, “One key component to successful emotional advertising is to find and capitalize on the core value of the brand, not just reach blindly for an emotional reaction” (Miller). These emotions need to serve a larger narrative and need to consider the relationship the audience may have with their media; otherwise, if too blatant, it undermines the emotional intelligence of the audience. If the light shines too brightly, in other words, the shadows of nuance and details are washed out, and the picture is lost.

To foreground adversity is to lead with it – to not only acknowledge it, but to embrace it and let it inform the narrative thrust of the stories we tell. When foregrounding adversity, and thus applying the mechanism that elicits an emotional response, it then follows that adversity can’t simply be presented for the sake of itself. In working to tell the stories of the young people involved in Dream a Dream, we developed a paradigm in addressing the adversity that, in its many shapes and forms and specific to each individual context, is an important component of those stories. In many ways, reducing a story to a single adversarial struggle is a disservice to the complex humanity that faces that struggle. A person can’t be defined by just one element of their existence, especially if that element is beyond their control, as is the case in many of the stories we hope to share.

As a result, the stories we tell present a reality containing adversity, rather than adversity that comprises reality. We trust the audience to have the emotional intelligence to engage with the content, its emotional framework, and its intended outcome without presenting any one element for the sake of itself. In “A Recipe to Thrive,” a short film we produced about a young man involved in Dream a Dream who is using his passion and talents for cooking to overcome adversity and thrive, we see him in his context, which helps illuminate the adversity he faces.

Still: “A Recipe to Thrive,” Dream a Dream.

He comes from a single-income family, his father having suffered an accident several years ago that left him unable to work. This pushed him toward a career he was not passionate about for the sake of a safe income. In terms of the film, instead of the longing gaze we chose to simply observe his reality, rather than emphasize adversity: the kitchen is modest, even meager; the ingredients are few. The imagery speaks to a larger narrative, of a young man taking control of his life by pursuing his passion and utilizing the resources provided him by Dream a Dream (Carpenter).

Still: “A Recipe to Thrive,” Dream a Dream

In another sequence we capture the work being done by his mother to make ends meet for her children. She’s become a flower seller, working in markets and on the streets. Her gaze is never forced upwards; in fact, despite the fact that she’s seated on the ground amongst her materials, we watch her at eye-level as she twists twine around the flower stems and wraps the garlands into beautiful spirals. The process alone is enough to convey the struggles she faces and the adversity she is working to overcome for the sake of her family. The adversity is foregrounded – it certainly isn’t hidden – and that is enough (Carpenter).



Graeme Newell, in his conversation with Contently, also advises content creators to “strategically resolve negative emotions and leave audiences with a positive takeaway” (Miller). While the Sarah McLachlan spots for the ASPCA certainly tug at the heartstrings with images of animals behind the bars of cages, the narrative resolves with feelings of hope as officers and veterinarians ultimately protect and care for the animals (ASPCA). The adversity, then, isn’t there for the sake of itself so as to elicit an emotional response; it’s a means to an end, to a larger story, that more authentically and organically calls audiences to act. Pure adversity can be overwhelming and distancing; like with any good mainstream story, resolution has its value and its place.

I think the disconnect may come from the assumption, on the part of the content creators and storytellers, that if resolution is shown then audiences will see no need to get involved, and will thus lose interest. Echoing the words of Newell, positivity needs to be manifested in some way to show the path of change and improvement.

The Dream a Dream paradigm, as we’ve come to explore it through produced digital content, is young person-centric and dignified. It aims to capture the hope of a young person navigating their own adversity and, through the education and implementation of life skills, thrive. It’s important to enter the headspace of a brighter future, of a tomorrow better than today, because adversity is universal, and people will face some form every day. The opportunities for improvement and solutions and feelings of confidence, against the realities of adversity, are much fewer and farer between; these are what I see as the main ingredient to a pathos-driven campaign.

In the final months of 2018 Dream a Dream initiated a fundraising campaign under the banner “A Chance to Thrive.” With it as a guiding light, the young person-centric paradigm shone through every aspect of the campaign.


The young man in the photograph stands with dignity and confidence. He isn’t gazing upward toward the audience, nor is the audience looking down on him. He is someone who, in his life, faces adversity, but he’s doing it with his eyes toward the horizon, toward a dream and a goal. There is a mutual sense of empowerment between him and the audience; a dignified example of what someone can achieve if given the chance – that chance, of course, coming from the support the campaign sought to secure. The campaign was a total success, shooting past the fundraising expectations and contributing greatly to the efforts of Dream a Dream in Bangalore and beyond.

The beauty of storytelling in its many forms is that it is entirely subjective, both in approach and response. No one approach is superior to any other, and each can be successful in its own way. These are simply my thoughts as I engage during my Fellowship with results-oriented storytelling in the development sector.

I personally think this…


…should be this…


Works Cited:

  1. Aristotle, and George Alexander Kennedy. (1991) Aristotle On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Carpenter, Christopher Scott, director. A Recipe To Thrive. Dream a Dream, 2018.
  3. Hill, Dan. Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success. Kogan Page Ltd., 2010.
  4. Miller, Carly. “The Dangerous Power of Emotional Advertising.” Contently,  14 Apr. 2016. Accessed at:
  5. Murray, Peter Noel. “How Emotions Influence What We Buy.” Psychology Today, 26 Feb. 2013. Accessed at:
  6. Strom, Stephanie. “Ad Featuring Singer Proves Bonanza for the A.S.P.C.A.” The New York Times, 25 Dec. 2008. Accessed at:
  7.  “ASPCA.” YouTube, 3 July 2007.

Christopher graduated magna cum laude from the University of Southern California (USC), where he earned degrees in Film & Television Production and Cognitive Science, and a Minor in Advertising. Throughout his career, he has sought and created partnerships between film technologies and social advocacy to enact positive change. He co-wrote and co-directed “Destination: SLC,” a documentary exploring the experiences of a Kenyan refugee living in Salt Lake City, Utah, which entered the film festival circuit and won regional awards. While at USC, Chris served as the Director of Marketing and Videographer for Program Board, a collective of advocacy groups representing the diverse student populations of USC. Chris conducted research in Beijing, Kaifeng, and Shanghai, China, analyzing the role and influence of globalism in consumer culture. He also served as Team Leader and Student Coordinator for the USC Volunteer Center’s Alternative Winter Break trip to Thailand, utilizing media campaigns to secure funding and supplies for the trip. Chris was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Mortar Board, and was a member of the Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity. Upon graduation, he lived and worked in Tokyo, Japan, for Ashinaga, an NGO focused on the education and social rehabilitation of orphaned students, developing and producing media campaigns. Most recently, Chris completed a graduate-level filmmaking certificate course at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, Czech Republic.

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