Poverty Porn

"Rich people will travel great distances to look at poor people."
—from the liner notes to "Stop Making Sense"

A tactic most commonly seen on TV, "poverty porn" is essentially when the condition of impoverished people is exploited in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling a product (e.g. newspapers), or increasing charitable donations (or general support) for a given cause. This tactic can be in any type of media, whether it written, photographed, or filmed.

This is usually seen in commercials asking for donations in which images of abandoned dogs with bruises (implicitly caused by their former pet owner) fail to stand inside a cage, or of starving children in an undeveloped, war-ridden homeland that's under a dictatorship. Then the would-be-celebrity appears on the screen to guilt trip you into making a "small donation" (the "bare minimum" as they professionally call it).

Your feelings at this point are supposed to be mixed feelings of pity and outrage. The tactic instills this response in you and then gives you an "opportunity" to act out your outrage while still showing your pity to these less fortunate people. Certain images are utilized in this way so often that they are practically "cash cows" for the well-meaning charity organization to show you.

Not to be confused with Poor Man's Porn, were it possible. Also see Appeal to Worse Problems and First World Problems.


  • Discussed in Blood Diamond. Maddy, an American journalist, starts writing a report about the social ravaging caused by the wars in Sierra Leone, but grows frustrated because she feels it won't make real effect, comparing to advertisements of starving children. Guilted by her vexation, the listening Archer starts admitting his inside knowledge of the blood diamond trade, giving her report a stronger call to political action.
  • This was a frequent criticism of Slumdog Millionaire, in that to Indian viewers it came off as depicting the real life hardships of slums in India as merely a backdrop to a Cinderella-esque story.

Live-Action TV
  • Both Discussed and Deconstructed in Adam Ruins Everything when Emily is quick to understand the good intentions of "Buy One, Give One" companies, in which Adam appropriately points out the flaws. She also demonstrates how she's a typical victim of "poverty porn" as she describes to Adam how she picture that would-be less-fortunate African and her visual interpretation is so stereotypical yet crass and offensive that she stops in the middle of it, realizing its "condescending" implications.
  • Parodied on the Saturday Night Live Season 40 episode hosted by Bill Hader as the latter played Charlie Daniels, an wannabe old white guy asking for viewers at home to send a check of 39 cents to help the poor country he's in while the natives are adamant that more than 39 cents should be sent instead. It even gets worse when Daniels makes the big mistake of assuming the country he's in is an African one that the natives decided to hold him ransom for a check of $200.

Real Life
  • The critic Diana George says many organizations have such a hard time convincing people living in first-world Western civilizations (particularly in America) that real poverty is actually out there that they resort to this in order to gain favor.