Fear Appeal Messages and Their Effectiveness in Advertising

Severin and Tankard state that persuasion “is one of the most basic forms of communication,” (Severin and Tankard, 2001). Persuasion is an important part of communication. It is basically the process of changing people’s minds. Whether it be a politician grasping for that final vote, or a major advertiser striving to increase sales of a certain product, or an environmentalist organization eager to convince people to recycle, it is a common occurrence. One may be persuaded and not even know about it. It isn’t necessarily a conscious action; persuasion can occur subconsciously as well.

In the act of persuasion, attitude change is extremely important (Severin and Tankard). One can be persuaded of an argument, but that does not mean that one will practice what he/she has heard. In changing people’s attitudes, or predispositions toward things (Severin and Tankard), the politician/advertiser/environmentalist group will be in the process of changing people’s behaviors. And behavioral changes are the most important.

One way of influencing people through persuasive messages is through the use of fear appeals. They are used to threaten or arouse fear in an audience in order to stimulate attitude change (Severin and Tankard). An example of a fear appeal in the 90’s is the “Brain on Drugs” campaign, where a fried egg represented the damaging effects of drugs on teenagers’ brains.
With the increase of technology and power of the media come more and more instances in which fear appeals are used. Not only are fear appeals used to sell products, but they are used to promote health, hygiene, and other things.

LaTour, Snipes and Bliss note that in using fear appeals, some negative behavior is usually associated with a negative effect, like smoking and lung cancer, or a positive behavior, unpracticed, is associated with a negative effect, like brushing teeth and cavities(LaTour, Snipes and Bliss, 1996). In the latter, the communicator will try to persuade the audience in avoiding the negative effect by practicing the positive behavior (LaTour, et al.).

The authors say that the use of fear appeals in advertising has increased over the years, but the communicators have yet to harness the exact formula for producing consistent results time and again (LaTour, et al.). Also, the ethicality of recent fear appeals needed to be taken into consideration (LaTour, et al.).

The authors tested the fear appeal theory with a stun-gun video, in which one group was subjected to watching a mild fear appeal commercial, and the other was subjected to the strong fear appeal video (LaTour, et al.). Both versions of the commercial were taken from an actual infomercial advertising the brand of stun gun, which had the desired effect of persuading women to buy the product in order to deter some form of physical attack (LaTour, et al.).

The mild fear appeal consisted of testimonials by police officers who celebrated the effectiveness of the product in warding off assailants. The strong fear appeal featured this, plus a segment of a 9-11 call just before a woman was assaulted and raped ( the assault and rape were not shown). (LaTour, et al.).

Females who had not been victimized in the past were the focus, and the mild and fear groups were comprised of 150 and 155 women, respectively (LaTour, et al.). The authors found that both groups had indifferent responses to the ethicality of the ad, but that more positive results about the ad and the subsequent purchase of the stun gun came from the strong fear appeal group, even though the stronger fear appeal caused more tension (LaTour, et al.).

A common use of fear appeals in advertising is reflected in ads promoting safe sex. Several studies have been done to test the effectiveness of these ads.

An early study on the effect of fear appeals to persuade consumers into using condoms to ward off AIDS was by Hill in 1988. He hypothesized that those who have a greater anxiety toward the contraction of AIDS would have a more positive attitude toward condom ads, and that those who had more sexual partners would also have a more positive attitude toward condom ads (Hill, 1998). In his experiment, Hill attempted to manipulate his subjects’ levels of anxiety as it related to AIDS. He conducted the experiment through the use of a high and low anxiety controls, and through the effect of high, moderate and non-fear appeals on the two controls (Hill). He found that higher-anxiety subjects and those with more sexual partners had a more positive attitude toward the ads than the lower-anxiety group (Hill). He also found that the moderate fear appeal worked best with both groups of subjects, rather than the non- fear appeal and the high fear appeal (Hill). He concluded that advertisers should “provide information in their promotions which directly discusses the general as well as the individual benefits derived from the utilization of controversial products designed to help the public cope with major social problems,” (Hill 1988). This does not only apply to the promotion of safe sex, but to the promotion of items to help protect against urban violence (Hill).

One study that attempted to determine the effectiveness fear appeals about safe sex aimed at teenagers was done by Witte and Morrison in 1995. They developed the study because of the rising numbers of AIDS cases in teenagers, and the rising numbers of sexual partners teens have in their high school years (Witte and Morrison, 1995). They wanted to determine whether ads depicting the possibilities of AIDS would influence teenagers to use condoms or abstinence (Witte and Morrison). One reason for these growing numbers is the prevalence of teenage risk takers, those seeking sensation (Witte and Morrison). Sensation seekers are those who need complex and exciting situations and will do whatever it takes to create that atmosphere of risk and danger (Zuckerman, 1979).

“Early sexual intercourse and risky sexual practices fit into a general syndrome of deviancy for young adults,” (Witte and Morrison). Their hypothesis was that high fear appeal strategies would convince high sensation seekers to practice condom use, abstinence or monogamy, and that low fear appeal strategies would be more influential in the continuing practice of condom use, abstinence and monogamy by low sensation seekers (Witte and Morrison). These hypotheses were tested with teens in a juvenile delinquent school and those attending a regular high school (Witte and Morrison).

The high fear appeal used graphic language and visuals (Witte and Morrison), and focused on the individual effects of AIDS on the human body through photographs (Witte and Morrison). The low fear appeal used ordinary language and visuals (Witte and Morrison) and focused on how others were vulnerable to the effects of the disease (Witte and Morrison).
Results of the study found that high sensation seekers were more threatened and fearful of AIDS than the low sensation seekers (Witte and Morrison). The low sensation seekers had overall more positive attitudes toward monogamy and condom use than the high sensation group, but neither the high nor low sensation group was influenced toward abstinence (Witte and Morrison). Also, in the month following the experiment, increased condom use was more reported in the low sensation seekers (Witte and Morrison).

The authors concluded that when communicating messages about safe sex to teenagers, it is important to take into consideration the effect the advertisement would have on those of different levels of sensation seeking (Witte and Morrison).
In Maciejewski’s 2004 study on the ethical use of fear appeals on Generation Y, he attempts to discover whether sexual and fear appeal ads even apply to the newest generation (Maciejewski, 2004). Wolburg and Pokrywczynski explain that Generation Y has several unique characteristics as compared to previous generations, and that college students are the most powerful members of the generation (Wolburg and Pokrywczynski, 2001). The authors also said that this generation has had much more exposure to the media and respond differently to advertisements (Wolburg and Pokrywczynski). They are also the group that advertisers and marketers want to appeal to (Wolburg and Pokrywczynski).

The hypotheses of the study were that both genders would have different reactions to sexual appeals, that both genders would have similar reactions to the fear appeal, that relativists would say that sexual appeals were more ethical, and idealists would not, and that idealists would say that fear appeals were more ethical, and relativists would not (Maciejewski). Three hundred seventy two college students from a private, midwestern university of about 6,000 students (Bradley?) were chosen for the study, and were asked to complete a survey about their dispositions toward the use of fear and sexual appeals in advertisements, rating them on a 7 point scale (Maciejewski).

After they had viewed the sexual appeal advertisement, they were asked to answer the following questions: it is right to use sexual appeals in ads when selling sunscreen, and it is right to use pictures of sexy-looking women in ads to sell sunscreen (Maciejewski). After they had viewed the fear appeal ad, they were asked to answer the following questions: it is wrong to use a picture of skin cancer in sunscreen ads, and it is wrong for a sunscreen ad to claim that the subject could get skin cancer (Maciejewski).

The study found that women were opposed to the use of sexual appeals, whether or not they were idealists or relativists, and that men were in favor of the sexual appeals (Maciejewski). The study also found that both males and females, relativists and ideologists were tolerant of fear appeals in advertising (Maciejewski).

Fear appeals are also commonly used in ads promoting health, and the following two studies attempt to discover whether or not fear appeals are useful in encouraging men and women to do self testicular and breast exams to catch cancer in its earliest stages.

(Roskos-Ewoldsen, Yu and Rhodes, 2004) One study attempted to discover whether fear appeal messages about breast cancer led to adaptive behavior (Roskos-Ewoldsen, Yu and Rhodes, 2004) . Two ideas were proposed: That fear appeals influence the audience’s attitude toward breast cancer, and that fear appeals influence the attitude toward self-examination (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al.).

The authors hypothesized that messages high in efficacy and threat would be the most effective in promoting adaptive behavior; that messages high in efficacy and threat are most effective in the retention and recall of attitudes toward the adaptive behavior; that negative attitudes will result from high-threat and low-efficacy messages; that high-threat and low-efficacy attitudes will result in greater attitude accessibility; and that as attitudes become more accessible, adaptive behaviors will begin to develop (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al.).

One hundred ten female college students were chosen for the experiment, and were asked to listen to four taped interviews concerning breast cancer (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al.). One was high threat, one was low threat, one was high efficacy and one was low efficacy (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al.).

The results of the study showed that the participants were more positive about self-examination in the high efficacy condition, and were more positive about self-examination in the low threat condition (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al.). Also, the accessibility, the retention and recall, of attitudes toward self-examination and breast cancer were both faster in the low-fear, high efficacy condition (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al.). In this experiment, low fear appeal messages were the most effective in attitude accessibility and formation of adaptive behaviors (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al.).

One study also focused on the effectiveness of fear appeals in creating adaptive behaviors, but this time it concerned men and testicular self-examinations. Mormans’s 2000 study attempted to discern whether message structure, masculinity and the influence of fear appeals each had significance in motivating men to perform self-exams (Morman, 2000).
Morman’s hypotheses were similar to Roskos-Ewoldsen et al.’s attitudes to performing breast self-examinations in women. He hypothesized that high-threat and high-efficacy messages would be more influential in motivating men to perform self-exams; that men who are more knowledgeable about testicular cancer would have more positive attitudes toward self-exams; and that men who know how to perform the self-exams correctly will have more positive attitudes toward the exams and have intentions of performing them (Morman).

Eighty males between the ages of 15 and 35 were chosen for the experiment, because it is between these ages that testicular cancer is most prevalent (National Cancer Institute). The majority were white, and were from a Midwestern university and a college (Morman). The test subjects were first given a survey on the knowledge of the cancer and of self-exams, and their family histories (Morman). They were then randomly assigned to one of four messages groups, which were message type (fact or narrative), and high or low efficacy. After the subjects read their messages, they were asked questions to determine their reactions (Morman).

Most men, the study found, were not knowledgeable about self-examination. A little more than half had heard about performing self-exams, but did not know how to or when, and a very small number of participants actually performed the examinations consistently (Morman). Men who were exposed to the high-efficacy messages had better intentions of performing the self-exams (Morman). Men exposed to the fact-based high-efficacy messages also had better intentions of performing self-tests. Lastly, men who had positive attitudes toward the self-tests had a better chance of performing them (Morman). Anti-drug and smoking campaigns are probably the most recognizable form of fear appeals. More memorable ads are the “Brain on Drugs” ads that came of out the 90s. There are also public service announcements that were popular in the 80s, and are still popular today. Many PSA’s feature celebrities or other crediblepeople, and are used to discourage young people from developing bad habits early in life.

Baker, Petty and Gleicher (1991) describe modern anti-drug education programs and how they help change children’s attitudes about drugs (Baker, Petty and Gleicher, 1991). The authors claim that programs in the beginning of the 90s were more effective in preventing drug abuse than earlier programs (Baker et al.).

The authors state that, in the first place, anti-drug messages are hard for children to absorb because of the plethora of messages they receive on a daily basis (Baker et al.). And, children (and everyone else) do not simply receive the messages: First they must be exposed to the information, they must pay attention to it, and they must commit the messages to memory (Baker et al.).

The authors chart an example of how anti-marijuana messages may work on children (Baker et al.) (Chart included). If the message is that marijuana is bad, and that using it may lead to harder drugs that will ruin the user’s life, several outcomes occur (Baker et al.). If, when hearing the message, one presumes that few people do this, or that marijuana is dangerous for other people, the message becomes irrelevant (Baker et al.). If the message is perceived as dangerous, those who dislike danger therefore dislike drugs, and will not use them (Baker et al.). Those who do like danger might like drugs, and may use them (Baker et al.). If the message is from a celebrity who disapproves of drug use, and the receiver likes the celebrity, they may also disapprove of drugs (Baker et al.).

Anti-drug programs like DARE do not typically use strong fear appeal messages, but present a variety of information and involve much contemplation on how the information plays out in real life (Baker et al.). Also, DARE and other programs have been found to work best with younger children (Baker et al.). High school students were skeptical of the effect the information would produce (Baker et al.).

Beaudoin (2002) presented a study on anti-smoking ads, and their influence over young people and adults. The study was focused on television anti-smoking ads and wanted to establish whether ads aimed at either adults or young people were more effective than the other (Beaudoin). Many factors were used in the ads to change and enforce anti-smoking attitudes; they were concern for health, concern for health in others and unborn children, addiction, its apparent “dirtiness,”and others (Beaudoin). Over all, appeals to fear were most effective with adults if they involved long-term health consequences (Beaudoin). Youth ads were most effective if they used humor, recognizable spokespeople, and involved short-term and social consequences (makes them uncool, dirty, etc.) (Beaudoin).

Two reviews were done on the anti-drug campaigns by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (DeJong and Wallack, 1999 and 2000). The first study explored the ONDCP’s 1998 anti-drug campaign, which was directed toward children (DeJong and Wallack, 1999).

Nearly two billion dollars of government money was set aside for the campaign, and the ads not only focused on children, but also appealed to parents as the protectors and educators of the children (DeJong and Wallack). The authors said that the campaign was effective with parents who previously had a good relationship with their children, but that with parents and children in different situations, the conversation was harder to start, and the child’s resistance was harder to penetrate (DeJong and Wallack). They also said that the ONDCP’s new campaign used exaggerated fear appeals, and were therefore less likely to be influential (DeJong and Wallack).

The second review by DeJong and Wallack (2000) was written after the ONDCP’s director responded to the first review. The director claimed that the alleged “exaggerated” fear appeals of a woman destroying her kitchen with a frying pan to simulate heroin use was not found to be exaggerated at all in test studies (DeJong and Wallack). The authors conclude that the ONDCP did not take personality characteristics of the audience into consideration, so the results of the study were not accurate. They also said that, as seen in past studies, extreme fear appeals are not very effective and often backfire (DeJong and Wallack).

In Reardon’s 1991 book, the authors states that arousing fear in individuals in order to spark change is a more complicated process than it was once thought to be. People handle fear differently, and also handle fear differently in different situations (Reardon). Also, “what causes fear in one person may be ignored by another,” (Reardon).

The use of fear appeals to incite attitude change depends on a number of variables, and it is difficult to predict whether certain ads will work with certain audiences on any given day. Further research and experimentation is needed to determine whether or not fear appeals can be used in all types of advertisements. Studies on fear appeals, however, will need to continue on as a result of new generations being influenced by new media messages. A social scientist’s work is never done.

This essay studies a variety of experiments in the use of fear appeal messages in advertising. The essay focuses on recent articles in order to provide the right context for today’s media audience. Articles examining health, safe sex and anti-smoking advertisements make up the bulk of the essay. No conclusions were made about whether or not fear appeal messages are effective; only the information presented in previous studies is relevant.

Baker, Sara M., Petty, Richard E., and Gleicher, Faith. (1991). Persuasion Theory and Drug Abuse Prevention. Journal of Health Communications, 3, 193-203. Retrieved April 2 from EBSCOHOST.
Beaudoin, Christopher E. (2002). Exploring Antismoking Ads: Appeals, Themes and Consequences. Journal of Health Communications, 7, 123-137. Retrieved April 2 from EBSCOHOST.
DeJong, William and Wallack, Lawrence. (1999). A Critical Perspective on the Drug Czar’s Antidrug Media Campaign. Journal of Health Communications, 4, 155-160. Retrieved April 15, 2005 from EBSCOHOST.
DeJong, William and Wallack, Lawrence. (2000). The Drug Czar’s Anti-Drug Media Campaign: Continuing Concerns. Journal of Health Communications, 5, 77-82. Retrieved April 15 from EBSCOHOST.
Hill, Ronald Paul. (1988). An Exploration of the Relationship Between AIDS-Related Anxiety and the Evaluation of Condom Advertisements. Journal of Advertising, 17, 35-42. Retrieved April 2 from EBSCOHOST.
LaTour, Michael S., Snipes, Robin L., and Bliss, Sara J. (1996). Don’t Be Afraid to Use Fear Appeals: An Experimental Study. Journal of Advertising Research, 36, 59-67. Retrieved April 2 from EBSCOHOST.
Maciejewski, Jeffrey J. (2004). Is the Use of Sexual and Fear Appeals Ethical? A Moral Evaluation By Generation Y College Students. Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising, 26, 97-105. Retrieved April 2 from EBSCOHOST.
Morman, Mark T. ( May, 2000). The Influence of Fear Appeals, Message Design, and Masculinity on Men’s Motivation to Perform the Testicular Self-Exam. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 28, 91-116. Retrieved April 2 from EBSCOHOST.
National Cancer Institute. (2005). Testicular Cancer Screening. .
Reardon, Kathleen Kelley. (1991). Persuasion in Practice. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.
Roskos-Ewoldsen, David R., Yu, H. Jessy, and Rhodes, Nancy. ( March, 2004). Fear Appeal Messages Affect Accessibility of Attitudes Toward the Threat and Adaptive Behaviors. Communication Monographs, 71, 49-69. Retrieved April 2 from EBSCOHOST.
Severin, Werner J., and Tankard, James W. Jr. (2001). Communication Theories: Origins, Methods and Uses in the Mass Media. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.
Witte, Kim and Morrison, Kelly. (1995). Using Scare Tactics to Promote Safer Sex Among Juveniles Detention and High School Youth. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 23, 128-142. Retrieved April 2 from EBSCOHOST.
Wolburg, Joyce M., and Pokrywczynski, James. (September/October 2001). A Psychographic Analysis of Generation Y College Students. Journal of Advertising Research, 41, 33-53. Retrieved April 15 from EBSCOHOST.
Zuckerman, Marvin. (1979). Sensation Seeking: Beyond the Optimal Level of Arousal. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

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