Why are the psychological sales tactics of, say, selling soap, not used by those who want you to care about Darfur? New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wondered this after failing to get his readers interested in the developing world. But that was then. Kristof explains how he’s now using the secrets of marketing and PR to effect change.
New GrassArtist: by Talk Talk
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s an old saying that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic. You could call this the first law of public relations, at least when it comes to building support for humanitarian causes. Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times and co-author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. His book and his columns frequently feature individuals who suffer unspeakable horrors but do more than suffer; they triumph. That could be the second law of public relations for this most humanitarian of advocacy journalists. Nick, welcome to the show.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: And my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you wrote in Outside Magazine recently that you had a revelation when it came to covering Darfur in 2004, but it was coming back that opened your eyes to coverage of Pale Male.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: That's right. At the same time that I was so frustrated by the lack of response to genocide, I found a cause that New Yorkers really could rally around, and that was the eviction of a red-tailed hawk called Pale Male. The building in which he was living had taken down his nest, and New Yorkers were galvanized. And I was just thinking, you know, if only we could get as much indignation and action to prevent genocide as we could about a homeless red-tailed hawk. And that kind of got me thinking about how one can make that connection.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, you looked at some recent research about what moves us, information that’s a big part of marketing.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, I came across social psychologist Paul Slovic who has done a great deal of work in this area, and the experiments typically involve exposing people to a particular scenario and then seeing if they will contribute. One of the classic experiments involves a seven-year-old girl from the country of Mali who’s starving and asking if people will help her out. Everybody wants to help Rokia. But if you ask people to help 21 million hungry people in Africa, nobody particularly wants to help them. Maybe what I found even more depressing is that the moment you even provide more background information to Rokia, if you say that she is hungry because of a famine in her country, then interest in helping her tends to drop. You know, we all know that at some point people tend to get numbed and tune out, but [LAUGHS] one of the things that I found fascinating was the number at which we tend to tune out. It’s not a million, it’s not a thousand, it’s not even a hundred - it’s two.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two! It was just amazing to me to read that. You've got starving little Rokia. You add her starving brother, and people are less likely to support.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: That's right. Even though people are very generous in supporting either Rokia or the boy, Moussa, the moment [LAUGHS] you put them together, they're less willing to help just two seven-year-old kids. And, you know, so the moment we start talking about hundreds of thousands, people’s eyes just glaze over.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've also written that outsiders are far more moved when people are able to triumph over their privations.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yes, and there is some evidence, although it’s not conclusive, that the reason we give is when you help other people and it makes a difference then, you know, your own brain is flooded with chemicals that make you happier. And so, I mean, one irony is that it’s really hard to be truly selfless, because the brain derives [LAUGHS] incredibly self-ish pleasures from being selfless. But you get that when you make a real difference and when you feel a part of something happy out there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you finesse a story that might not end happily because, obviously, you’re an advocacy journalist; you report not just to report but to spur action.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, I mean, I must say I always flinch a little bit when people call me an advocacy journalist, so I'm flinching just a little right now. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is an honorable tradition, Nick – A, B.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You actually list charities in your column.
[BOTH AT ONCE/OVERTALK]
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it isn't as if you’re a -
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Rub it in, rub it in.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I mean, look, there are some things that are just so terrible that, you know, [LAUGHS] it’s really pretty hard to find somebody overcoming it. But one of the things that I have found is that you’re more likely to find a hero out in those brothels of Cambodia, you know, than you are here in the streets of New York, because these incredible bouts of inhumanity also tend to bring out the best from other people around them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've been writing that these sorts of rules, an emphasis on individuals rather than groups, not worrying so much about context, putting the spotlight on positive stories, that these are being heeded by companies trying to sell soap, more than they are by philanthropic organizations.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: You know, at the end of the day I think humanitarians really feel very awkward and embarrassed about marketing, but it really doesn't matter whether a shampoo gets better marketing. It does matter when a famine or a huge crisis is oh - well, I hate to use the word “marketed” better but, you know, is publicized in a way that will be more effective.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you seen a product with no social significance be marketed according to these rules?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Sure. I mean, anytime you see a shampoo, for example, being marketed, it’s not based on the fact that, you know, 38 percent of adults have shinier hair when they use this product. It’s about, you know, one particular person who - wow, she looks better and she’s going to get a better date or whatever it may be.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] It’s these individual stories that feel kind of empowering and heartwarming. I mean, one of the challenges for me, frankly, is that if you follow this research, then you would leave out context. All you would do would be telling individual stories, and that would be one step too far for me. I do want to connect with people and inform them about these larger problems. So my compromise is that I do try to find a story that will resonate with people. But then at that point I try to throw in the larger context, the background information, and make it clear that, in the case of the Congo, for example, how many millions of people are affected and hope that doesn't deter the power of that individual story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any issue that resists this approach?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah, I mean, it happens all the time. Climate change is one example, because while there appear to be many, many victims of climate change, it’s very hard to find a case where you can connect that causality. For example, malaria is going into new areas because of global warming, and so I've gone to those areas, in Burundi, for example, and I can find people who are sick or dying of malaria. But with any individual case, you can't be sure that that is connected with climate change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you have a particular issue, the oppression, the abuse, the murder of women all around the world. That’s your focus. Why do you think this is the preeminent issue of this century?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Actually, can I turn the tables and ask you a question? Are there more males or females in the world today? What’s your guess?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: My guess would be - more males?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: You know too much, Brooke. Yeah. [LAUGHS]
[BROOKE LAUGHS]] Almost everybody you ask says that there are more females [LAUGHS], you know, because in the U.S. there are more females, in Europe there are more females. But worldwide there are actually more males, and that is because so many women have been discriminated against to death.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know that because I read you, Nick.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: I can't complain about that.
[LAUGHTER] But there are somewhere around 100 million women who have vanished because of this kind of discrimination, and that’s more than all the men who were killed in all the wars of the 20th century it’s far more than were killed in all the genocides. When you have that kind of oppression that just feels like a transcendent issue. Another reason to focus on this is if you want to tackle global poverty, terrorism, civil conflict, in fact, all the issues that we're wrestling with in Afghanistan and Pakistan right now, then the most cost-effective way of doing that is to educate girls, to bring them into the labor force. That tends to result in more economic growth and into more civil society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Before you had your public relations revelation, what do you think is the greatest opportunity that you missed?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Writing about AIDS. I was often frustrated that I'd write about AIDS in Africa and, you know, it just disappeared into the pond without a ripple. And I think that in retrospect if I had managed to, alongside all the horrors of people dying young, if I'd found some examples where success is possible, I think that maybe those columns would have had more effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that you flinch when you get called an advocacy journalist, but when you sit down to write a column what is it that you’re trying to achieve?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah. Well, I'm advocating. [LAUGHS]
[LAUGHTER] But I'm reluctant to be called out on it. My career was as a reporter, and there’s an uncomfortable tension there, because one of the reasons that I became a journalist is, frankly, that I wanted to make a difference. And yet, at the same time, there is sometimes a perception that an advocate is somebody who goes out and finds evidence to buttress their preexisting convictions. And that’s why I flinch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you can tell the truth and still want to spark a particular action.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yes, absolutely. That is one of the great perks of journalism, that there are a lot of problems in the world and that we carry a spotlight. What I want to do is shine my light to illuminate that problem, but I don't want to tinker with the evidence. I just want to galvanize people by showing them what is out there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nick, thank you so much.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: It’s my pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. He’s co-author with Sheryl WuDunn of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.