Follow TV Tropes


Poverty Porn

Go To

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 with images of abandoned dogs with bruises (implicitly caused by their former pet owner) who 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 of just pennies a day" (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, as well as Darkest Africa.


Film — Live-Action

  • Blood Diamond: Discussed. 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 any real effect. She compares it to advertisements featuring 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.
    "You're right. It's shit. It's like one of those infomercials with African kids with swollen bellies and flies in their eyes. See here I've got dead mothers, I've got severed limbs, but it's nothing new. Sure, it might make some people cry if they read it, maybe even write a check. But it's not going to be enough to make it stop!"
  • Slumdog Millionaire: This was a frequent criticism of the film, 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.
  • Brazilian cinema is sometimes called on this in the country, due to the sheer number of films exploiting the favelas as a backdrop (City of God and The Elite Squad being the most notorious examples), to the point that the term "Favela Movie" was coined by some journalists and cinema critics.

Live-Action TV

  • Adam Ruins Everything: Both Discussed and Deconstructed 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.
  • My Name Is Earl: Earl recalls that back when he and Joy were still married (before he began working on The List), they watched a commercial like this for some organization helping children in Africa, which inspired them to start a Fake Charity. Earl gave up on it after a while, but Joy kept it up, even long after she divorced Earl and married Darnell. She sent a picture to her primary "donor" of a boy named "Mbungo," which was really just a picture of Earl Jr. and a fly. She also got some of the other trailer park women in on her scam, with each of them invoking this trope in their own ways for their fake charity scams. After a series of disasters ensues, these women are left in dire straits for real, in ways very similar to what they had faked photos of and lied about. The old man that they were scamming wrote them checks anyway, saying how it felt good to give, and to forgive.
  • Saturday Night Live: Parodied in the sketch "39 Cents" where Bill Hader plays Charles Daniels, an old white man 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 in cash should be sent instead). Daniels makes the big mistake of guessing the country he's in is Africa, prompting the natives to hold him for a ransom of $200 cash.

Public Service Announcements

  • "Great Nations Eat" invoked this trope in two ads by depicting America as the poverty-ridden country in question where 20% of children suffer malnourishment, and the comparatively better off nations of Germany and China appealing to their citizenry to aid American children.

Web Original

  • CollegeHumor: Parodied in a sketch about an "Adopt-A-Graduate" program, that parodies those "sponsor a child" programs. It features recent college grads staring forlornly into the camera and crying because Growing Up Sucks.

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.
  • JoĆ£osinho Trinta noted this as a reason for why he chose to create lavish costumes and floats for Carnival, creating a trend: "Only intellectuals like poverty, the poor people like luxury."
  • Filipino indie filmmaker Brillante Mendoza is known for making films that depict the harsh realities of Filipino society. Some of his movies gained recognition from various international film festivals such as the Cannes Film Festival etc. However, several domestic film critics noted that his films are "poverty porn" which led to the misconception that Filipino indie films are all about poverty despite that not all indie films are about that.