Why the Planned Parenthood Video Worked So Well

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Whatever your own beliefs about abortion, the video posted to YouTube on Tuesday by a group calling itself the Center for Medical Progress is not fun to watch. The eight-minute hidden-camera “sting” consists mostly of footage of a lunch meeting between Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood for America’s senior director of medical services, and two individuals posing as representatives from a fetal tissue procurement company, and it quickly jumped into the national spotlight, garnering more than 2 million views on YouTube, news coverage, and outraged columns in major outlets, and fierce denunciations from Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates. 

In light of the video’s content, the level of attention it’s garnered isn’t surprising. The video includes a number of cringe-worthy moments in which Nucatola frankly discusses the reality of extracting and donating fetal body parts, all while she eats a salad and sips wine. There’s always a demand for “as many intact livers as possible” she notes at one point. At another, she appears to be explaining the amounts Planned Parenthood charges to procure different fetal organs: “I would say it’s anywhere between $30 to $100” per specimen. In perhaps the most disturbing-seeming part of the video, Nucatola explains that when an abortion provider knows a woman wants to donate a specific fetal organ, they might perform the procedure “under ultrasound guidance, so they’ll know where they’re putting their forceps.” She explains that “we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”

The video splashes quotes from the federal laws banning the purchases or sale of human organs, and of organs from aborted fetuses in particular, implying that Nucatola is implicating her organization in criminal activity. But as Jessica Roy explained on the Cut earlier this week, there’s more smoke than fire here: “Under the National Institute of Health Revitalization Act of 1993,” wrote Roy, “Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers are legally allowed to donate fetal tissue and organs obtained through induced abortion, as long as both the woman and doctor provide written consent and attest that the fetus was not conceived specifically for the purpose of gathering its fetal tissue.” In the video, talk of money refers to the fact that it is legal to cover the administrative and transportation costs associated with extracting an organ from an aborted fetus — hence the nominal amounts cited by Nucatola.

And yet it’s hard not to be squicked out by the conversation, regardless of one’s political views. It is, after all, a video of a woman casually discussing the harvesting of fetal organs while she munches on her lunch. It’s an incredibly effective piece of political media, and one that works across political lines — I know I’m not the only pro-choice person who felt disgusted by parts of it, even if that sense cooled off once I got the full context.

That’s sort of the point, said Yoel Inbar, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who studies people’s political and moral beliefs, and who has researched disgust specifically. But not everyone will get the full context — for many viewers, the outrage will be the beginning and the end of the story, which means the video worked. A sure-fire way to produce effective political media, Inbar explained, is to “push emotional outrage buttons.” In this case, the actual issue — donating fetal tissue that would otherwise be discarded and covering the overhead costs of doing so — shouldn’t be all that controversial to people who believe that abortion should be legal. But framed differently, more outrageously — look at this evil woman munching her salad while she talks about extracting fetuses’ livers — it’s hard to see the issue in a cold, rational light. The story becomes something different, bigger and more disgusting, and of interest not just to anti-choice true believers but to a much wider swath of potential viewers.

It doesn’t help that Nucatola — or the version of her presented by the video’s editing — doesn’t come off in a particularly good light. “She does talk about it in a way that seems really callous and uncaring,” said Inbar, “and there’s quite a bit of research in moral psychology that looks at when people are making moral judgments … one of the things they’re trying to figure out is whether this is a good person or a bad person.” Though in-person and video contexts are different, this is in line with other findings showing that first impressions matter a lot. “There’s a lot of evidence that we make these judgments of the sort of goodness or badness of people very quickly,” said David Pizarro, a psychology professor at Cornell who studies disgust, and who has co-authored papers with Inbar on the subject. The producers of the video seemed to have understood this, quickly hammering home the implication that Nucatola is not a good person: Just 35 seconds in, she’s talking about the desire for intact fetal hearts as she casually stabs at her salad with a fork. “It must be bad,” said Pizarro, stepping into the shoes of hypothetical viewer who doesn’t understand the broader context of the discussion they’re witnessing, “because a bad person is in favor of it. If this callous robot is the one who’s in charge of this, it can’t be a good thing.”

Another problem with Nucatola’s demeanor, Pizarro said, is that there’s also a great deal of research showing that humans will cut other humans slack when it comes to morally charged decisions — but only if they show outward signs of careful deliberation, painful emotions, or both. Nucatola does not exhibit any such signs of moral compunction. There are good reasons for that, of course — for one thing, she’s talking about a legal procedure that she believes to be morally sound; for another, medical professionals talk about icky-sounding issues with one another all the time, often in ways that people from outside the medical field would find disgusting (“My initial thought as I read the commentary was, Have you ever talked to an MD about this stuff?” said Pizarro). These important nuances are lost, though, in the video’s disgust-fueled spectacle.

This can all help explain the video’s crossover effectiveness, but it’s also quite good at riling up true believers. Perhaps most important from the point of view of online sharing is that it taps into longstanding myths about abortion providers: that they’re enrich themselves by engaging in the illegal trafficking of human fetuses and/or fetal tissues. In terms of generating rumors (or online content) that will be passed around, the best bet is a one-two approach that combines some new piece of information (the video of the lunch) with something a given audience already “knows” (that PPFA is engaged in illegal organ trafficking). “There’s a sweet spot there between totally novel and I’ve heard this so much before I’m onboard with it,” said Inbar. Think about the Obama birth-certificate rumors: The particular charge was new, but it neatly confirmed a general “truth” — Obama just isn’t one of us — that Obama’s most paranoid critics already believed. Confirmation bias is a powerful amplifier of rumors and YouTube videos alike.

Toward the end of each conversation, I asked the researchers to set aside their own views and grade the video. “I am pro-choice, but this is an A+ video for people who are pro-life,” said Pizarro. “This is just a brilliant piece of marketing and strategy.” As for Inbar: “I think it’s totally an A+. The way that the Planned Parenthood doctor talks about this, it doesn’t do them any favors. I’m pro-choice personally, but I thought it was a little creepy.”

Given how much of the conversation about this video has focused on visceral emotions rather than the realities and nuances of abortion law, it’s hard not to agree with these assessments.