Whilst I can’t stand hunting, I do feel sorry for Walter J. Palmer the dentist from Minnesota who shot Cecil with a high-tech cross-bow. Given that thousands of people across the world go hunting every day and that the killing of animals for sport, trophy and other dubious benefits is commonplace, he is extraordinarily unlucky.
And the key factor in his bad luck is that the lion he killed had a name, and a memorable easy-to-pronounce name. If the same well-known lion simply had a number, he would still have been dead but there would have been no international outcry.
As spin-doctors what we learn from this is that if you want people to care – about anything – give it a name. It is the first crucial step in building empathy.
The school spider
I learnt this from my mother, at one time a secondary school English teacher and always a respecter of all living creatures. In our family it was never permitted to kill spiders, flies or mice. They always had to be caught and put outside, somewhere safe.
One day Mum went into a classroom to discover some near hysterical teenagers egging each other on to kill a large spider. She immediately said ‘Do you mind, you can’t kill my friend Ermintrude!’ which stopped them all in their tracks. Further details of this story are rather lost in the mists of time but when Ermintrude disappeared, the youngsters who had been on a murderous mission a day or so before were now exercised as to whether the cleaning lady had killed the now beloved Ermintrude. Giving the spider a name probably saved its life.
The power of a name
In message building with clients I have learnt that giving something a name can have similarly miraculous results. I have helped name software systems, hypothetical bank customers, hypothetical refugees and the odd cow. Humanising something makes it easier to talk about and helps us to care.
However, if you don’t want to elicit sympathy your subject is often best left unnamed. Click through for a more in-depth piece from Frances Ryan of the New Statesman who compares the almost humanising of Cecil the lion with the “dehumanising” of the migrants at Calais.
And just to show the power of this story, when US late-night chat show host Jimmy Kimmel had his say he asked people to donate to the Oxford University researchers who had been tracking the lion. Donations to date have topped £300,000. If you are moved to donate too, click here.