The Psychology of Pledge Drives

Feb 13, 2009
Female Operator

Before I get to the actual point of this post, allow me to rant just a little. What's up with the increasing number, and more importantly the duration, of public radio/television pledge drives? Our local public television station, UNC-TV, will be starting their Festival drive in February, and it will last for more than a month (February 21 to March 29)! If this kind of thing happened just once a year, I wouldn't care so much. However, two months ago, the station had its Winterfest drive (November 30 to December 14). Occasionally, they'll even have a drive in August! Public television clearly needs commercials. I would suggest having commercials between the television shows they offer, so as to keep the 'commercial-free' feel of today. Just my 2 cents.

Back to the real topic. Driving home yesterday, I listened to a little bit of our local public radio station. They are currently in the midst of their pledge drive, so programming is light and begging for pledges is heavy. In the midst of their asking for donations, you often hear the sound of telephones in the background. And I'm talking old school telephones. Let's take a quick walk down memory lane and have a history lesson.

Back before the digital revolution, telephones had bells in them. Yes, physical bells. When someone called you, a small hammer oscillated between two of these bells, causing the telephone to 'ring' (hence the term 'ringing' someone). I haven't seen one of these telephones in probably 20 years or more. Yet, during these public entertainment pledge drives, you hear them ringing constantly.

The funniest circumstance of this is found during the public television pledge drive. Volunteers can be seen in the background sitting at computers with their operator-style headsets. No telephones can be seen during this time. And, occasionally, none of the operators are talking. Yet the ringing goes on. So where are those ringing sounds coming from? Are the computers synthesizing the sound? Or is it a gimmick being pulled from the control booth?

I like to think it's the latter. On my way home yesterday, while listening to the radio, I got thinking about this phenomenon. There must be a point at which this ringing trickery yields the greatest ROI, right? And someone must have figured this out. I'm no statistician, and I'm no psychologist, so the following logic is simply me thinking aloud. If the 'phones' were constantly ringing off the hook, with no breaks in between, it seems to me that listeners would be less likely to call in and pledge (why pledge, when everyone else is doing it for me?). Likewise, if the phones were too silent, listeners again might be less inclined to call (silence won't prompt the listener into action). So the answer certainly lies somewhere in between. I'm guessing that, if the ringing is indeed a trick, the frequency of said ringing is somewhere on the lower end of the spectrum. As a radio station, you want to sound needy, but not too needy. Others are supporting us; why won't you?

I'd love to know where the middle ground really is. Maybe an influential politician will happen upon this post and decide to funnel some of our country's economic stimulus package into a research program on this topic. Our nation's public media outlets might depend on it. ;-)

1 Comment


6:49 PM on Feb 13, 2009
Could it be related to the number of near misses used by slot machines? Quoting from a recent item over at Discover: "Slot machine makers capitalize on the near-miss effect. Researchers have found that they program their games to tease players with near misses about 30% of the time–a number previous studies have found optimal for getting gamblers to keep coming back [ScienceNOW Daily News]." Interesting post. I think you're on to something.

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