Is empathy alone enough to instigate social change?

Filthy Rich and Homeless is a reality television show first aired on SBS in 2017. The show follows the journey of 5 high profile, affluent and successful individuals who swap their suits and ties for jeans and flannelettes, and dive deep into the experience of homelessness, for a mere 10 days. The show’s purpose, supposedly, extends beyond purely entertainment value, with the intention of creating positive change through a sensitive experiment with empathy.

Throughout the show, dramatic cinematography coupled with suspenseful music makes for entertaining and compelling viewing, which is where the alarm bells first started ringing for me.  Poverty Porn is a term used in media to describe the way Westerners portray and represent  socially disadvantaged members of society in a way which is distorted, and often, for either entertainment or monetary gain (Threadgold, 2015).

As Delaney writes, “the personalities on Filthy Rich and Homeless act as a bridge between our comfortable lives as we watch the show from the warmth of our homes and the homeless people we pass every day on the streets of our cities” (2018).  Contentedly, we view this social issue through a safe, middle class lens – with the knowledge that after the 10 days is up, our beloved socialites will return safely to their mansions and resume life as normal (Jabour, 2017).

The aim of this video is to satirically engage the audience with this phenomenon, and in doing so, encourage them to consider whether or not shows like this are a genuine positive intervention on a social issue, or a mere way of making money off the problem. The video is broken into two main sections, both of which drastically juxtapose each other to emphasise the key point at hand.

I should not, however, completely discredit some of the positives that this show instigates. Filthy Rich and Homeless can be rewarded for its attempt at bringing the issue of homelessness to the public’s conscious, and engaging us in a conversation around its significance. The emotive cinematography can be argued to enhance the viewer’s experience of empathy, hence making them more likely to react differently to an interaction with a homeless person in the future. As Delaney argues, “without empathy there can be no compassion, and without compassion our hearts are not running at their full capacity, and there is no will to push for social change” (2018).

However, the main point of this video, and the main argument for viewers to consider is: what really happens when the cameras stop rolling? In terms of global media intervention, one criteria that this case study is lacking is the presence of a Key Opinion Leader (KOL).  As outline this semester, a KOL is a trusted expert, “whose opinion is valued in a specific industry or area of knowledge, and is listened to by a broader audience” (Ehrhardt, 2018). It is through their influence that they can facilitate real social, cultural, technological and industrial change.

But in realty, are there any palpable positive outcomes from a show like this? In actuality, when all filming is over, the homeless return to being homeless, and the privileged socialites reinstate their affluent positions within society.


Ehrhardt, J 2018, ‘When to Use a Key Opinion Leader vs. an Influencer’, InfluencerDB, February 8, viewed 6 November 2018, <;

Jabour, B 2017, ‘Filthy Rich and Homeless: a safe, distant lens the middle class needs to empathise with the poor’, The Guardian, June 27, viewed 7 November 2018, <;

Threadgold, S 2015, ‘Struggle Street is poverty porn with an extra dose of class racism’, The Conversation, May 6, viewed 2 November, <;

Delaney, B 2018, ‘Filthy Rich and Homeless: can empathy alone really change how we view disadvantage?’, The Guardian, August 15, viewed 3 November 2018, <;

Published by susiealdermann

Fifth Year Bachelor of Communications and Media/ Bachelor of International Studies (Dean's Scholar) student

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