Fear appeals or ‘shock tactics’ have been a staple of social marketing programmes since before the discipline existed. Despite a wealth of research casting doubt on its effectiveness, the approach continues to prove popular amongst commissioners and practitioners.

Over just the last two months the Considered_ has been called upon to contributed to a number of radio shows discussing this very issue, in relation to the UK government’s recent binge drinking campaign and the decision to incorporate graphic images onto cigarette packets.

The appeal of the shock tactics approach is understandable for a number of reasons:

  • The initial impact of the ads is undeniable, and the emotional response it creates feels rich in motivational potential.
  • Given that we are dealing with extremely serious issues and deeply ingrained behaviours, there is an apparent logic in ‘waking/shaking people up’ – bringing them face-to-face with the consequences of their behaviour – giving them a reality check – bringing on an epiphany – switching on a light.
  • This convincing common sense logic gives the approach a strong populist appeal, especially when dealing with highly emotive issues such as drink driving and substance misuse. It gives the public (and the people to whom commissioners are accountable) a strong sense that “something is being done” – that the establishment is taking this issue seriously and standing up for the ‘victim’.
  • And, let’s face it, everyone in the industry knows that it’s good PR. Ad executions that are challenging in this way get column inches which further boost the reach of the campaign.

However, when we scratch the surface of this common sense logic we soon start to realise that all that glitters is not gold. There’s a rapidly growing canon surrounding this issue which I intend to post on more comprehensively elsewhere. However, two presentations I attended at the recent World Social Marketing Conference in Brighton raised some fascinating insights as a starting point.

Geoff McLean from the University of Wollongong presented the findings of Jennifer Algie, Sandra Jones and John Rossiter on the use of fear appeals in Australian road safety campaigns. Their research departed from previous studies in its comparison of the relative effectiveness of fear patterns and fear levels in terms of advertising ‘wear-out’. I.e. does the impact of advertisements that oscillate between emotions of fear and relief recede more quickly than those that simply focus on fear levels alone?

In broad strokes, the findings showed that in both situations both emotional and attentional wear -out occurred immediately, but that the executions with fear-relief patterns were more effective in reducing (simulated) speeding behaviour. Read the full paper here.

The concept of wear-out is both interesting and important in talking about the effectiveness of fear appeals. How quickly the impact of the ad diminishes in terms of its ability to attract/maintain attention (over multiple showings or executions), invoke an emotional response and actually have an effect on behaviour.

Geoff also talked briefly about the danger of ‘defence’ reactions. If the recipient is heavily involved with the undesirable behaviour (eg someone who really enjoys smoking) fear appeals can have a counterproductive effect. Pyschological defense mechanisms are activated and the recipient ‘digs their heels in’ even further. [See Brehm (1966) on Reactance Theory for more on this fear appeal caveat].

Dr. Gonzalo Díaz Meneses from the Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria delivered a delightful presentation arguing for a social marketing based on hope, rather than fear, summed up in the following quote:

This work proposes that greater effort be devoted to the heuristics of hope: it is not the fear of doomsday that should become the basis of the ecological ideology of the new millennium but rather the hope that the consumer can become more oriented to recycling.

Download the presentation here and read his abstract here.

His work focused on the motivations and barriers to recycyling behaviour and found that emotional appeals are more effective that cognitive (reinforcing our “information is not enough” mantra – rational decisions doesn’t entail behaviour change) and that appeals based on positive emotions are more effective that those based on negative.

Despite the refreshingly optimistic tone and content of the presentation, Dr Meneses raised a number of more general and more worrying problems with the fear-appeal approach.

  • Attempts to scare people into (not) doing something creates an emotional distance between the audience and the authority – it runs counter to attempts to build open relationships built on affinity and trust that can be carried over to future campaigns, campaigns in other areas and the public health agenda in general. 
  • There is a simple ethical issue about government-sponsored scare-tactics –  ie the state using fear to induce desired behaviour. Philosophically, this puts us on an uncomfortably slippery slope.