Ethical Persuasion

7 min readAug 6, 2022


Persuasion is getting a bad rep: too often is associated with manipulation and considered incompatible with ethics. Is this really true, though? We often use persuasion in everyday life: I bet that last time you went out with family or friends, quite a bit of persuasion went on. Maybe, someone suggested a restaurant or a movie and convinced everyone else to go along with the idea. Persuasion in practice.

Persuasion itself, then, it is not to blame, but rather it must be considered a tool, and like all tools, it can be used for good or evil. It all comes down to intent and application. Who stands to benefit the most from the results of the persuasion efforts?

Sometimes it is not as easy to discern.

This is why I like to use the TARES (1) test. Created in 2001 by Sherry Baker and David L. Martinson, it leads to questions test to discern if persuasion is in fact ethical. While they focused mainly on advertisements (the internet was taking its baby steps), it perfectly applies to all types of persuasion. It consists of 5 main principles:

  1. Authenticity (of the persuader) > is the claim authentic?
  2. Respect (for the persuadee) > does it treat the receiver with respect?
  3. persuasive appeal) > is there equity between the creator and the consumer?
  4. Social Responsibility (for the common good) > is it socially responsible?

This simple framework makes it easier to assess any persuasive appeal.

An Example of Ethical Persuasion

The example I want to talk about is a fundraising letter I received around October from Rady’s Children’s Hospital Foundation (San Diego, California, USA). I, like many of you, receive lots of appeals for donations for the most disparate causes, but this one really caught my eye because of its excellent use of behavioral design (=using psychological principles to inspire a behavioral change) without falling into the manipulation trap.

The mailer uses many persuasive techniques to achieve their well deserving goal. It focuses on the testimonial of a patient’s mother, who tells the harrowing ordeal her daughter Valentina went through. While the letter evokes strong feelings
and creates a sense of community that unites people, it also easily allows the maximum individual choice of ignoring it. It takes the readers through a complex internal journey that alternates between negative and positive feelings, and ends with hope and inspiration to act.

the envelope and the front of the letter on a neutral color surface

Does it pass the TARES test? Let’s see!

The mailer is definitively persuasive and able to provoke a strong emotional and empathic response, but is it also ethical according to Baker’s and Martinson’s 5 principles test?

  1. Truthfulness — Valentina’s story is absolutely true. And so it is the claim that donations are needed to support the program and the seals of approval displayed in the letter
  2. Rady’s Children is a very well-known and trusted hospital and its foundation has been rated highly by, an organization that rates non-profits based in part on their funds’ utilization
  3. Respect — It is never paternalistic in its approach, and it is considerate of the reader’s possible concerns about trustworthiness, and addresses them head-on, with badges and testimonials
  4. Equity the mailer is very clear in its intent of raising funds. There is no hidden agenda
  5. Social Responsibility: helping gravely ill children seems the perfect example of social responsibility to me

The mailer, therefore, passes the TARES test with flying colors. It demonstrated how persuasion can be used for the common good. Through expert use of design, writing and psychology principles, it creates an emotional connection with the reader, induces connection with its use of storytelling, and ultimately, it inspires to make a donation.

Do you want to know more about what specific psychological tools they used to make the mailer persuasive? Read on.

Behavioral Design Techniques

By sending a printed letter, Rady Children’s Foundation increased the chance of someone noticing it. Taking advantage of the tactile element they are more likely to grab attention: touch makes things more real to us, because it is a direct connection to our world and surroundings ( Handel, 2020). It also makes them more memorable ( APA, n.d.).

The Envelope

close up of the envelope with various call out for the various persuasive techniques

The organization’s name and logo, printed prominently on the back of the envelope, evoke the power of authority principle: Rady’s Children is a very famous children’s hospital in San Diego and in the nation, highly ranked in Neonatology, Orthopedics and Urology.

The envelope is adopting an even more persuasive tool: a captivating photo of a child, Valentina, displaying the month the photo was taken, to add realism: she is definitively not an actor and she is looking sweetly at the recipient. It is a great appeal to emotions, and children, in particular, inspire compassion.

The main message for the mailer is Tell Them [the children] YES, and it is repeated multiple times, starting with the envelope.

Finally, a real stamp, and not a pre-printed one, is used, to suggest a more personal missive versus a mass mailing.

The Letter

Front of the letter with various call-out pointing out to the persuasive elements described in the text

The main message it is repeated on the top image in the front of the letter and on the donation card. The letter also reminds the readers that the holidays are coming up, which will prime them to think about end-of-year giving, even if it is only October ( never too early, right?)

Another photo of Valentina is on the top, right next to the call to action, surrounded by nurses and holding a sign that says “ Way To Go Valentina “, suggesting that she is now completely healed.

The body of the letter continues to use copy that is skillfully written. The bulk of the missive tells the story of Valentina through the words of “ Michelle B., Valentina’s Mom”. The use of the informal term mom, instead of mother, makes it feel even more poignant, especially to readers who may be mothers themselves.

The letter adopts another great persuasive technique: a storytelling format (Lichaw, 2016). The story arc details the victories and setbacks, till it reaches a happy conclusion: after two years Valentina completed her cancer treatment. Emotional images, showing Valentina during treatment and after recovery, help tell a deeply emotional story. Also included is a reference to research studies, increasing the trustworthiness of the written text.

Back of the letter with various call-out pointing out to the persuasive elements described in the text

The last stage of a narrative arc is the conclusion, and in this case, it is an appeal from her mom. Even this part has been perfectly written: she doesn’t ask the reader to donate money; instead she writes “ please consider making a gift to help the next child entering the doors of Rady’s children’s”. By not focusing on the monetary aspect, she makes the request sound much more accessible.

The final sentences are increasing the reader’s self-efficacy, by explaining these necessary services “rely on YOUR generosity ( emphasis mine)”. By giving today, “YOU know that you have made a difference for a child” ( emphasis mine). This direct appeal also addresses the bystander effect, by talking directly to the readers, not others like them.

Throughout the letter, the story is interrupted by lines of bold text, encouraging the audience directly to give, and to join the fight against childhood cancer. The attached donation card reminds them they can be a hero, by joining the monthly giving program. On the opposite side of this perforated panel, right above the suggested donation, the headline reads: “ I want to help tell children like Valentina, ‘YES! There IS Hope.’ This is a very strong emotional appeal because, writing in the first person, the mailer encourages identification.

At the bottom of the letter there is one more persuasive tool, often utilized by marketing professionals: two seals, reminding of their high ranking and approval of the organization, are placed right above the donation panel, reinforcing the power of authority and including social proof when it matters.


Learn More about the Power of Authority, Social Proof, Bystander Effect and other cognitive biases with this handy cheatsheet by

More Resources on Ethical Persuasion

Originally published at on August 6, 2022.




UX Psychologist and ethical interactive designer. Higher ROI without manipulation.