You may not have noticed it, but you are likely to have come across fear appeal tactics used by mass media and businesses that want your custom.
So what is fear appeal and how does it affect our attitudes and behaviors?
Fear appeal is a carefully constructed message that aims to arouse fear in an individual so that they follow the recommendations of that message. Fear appeals are frequently used in marketing communications but have also been used for health drives, political campaigns, driving safety initiatives, and even within schools to spur students on to get better grades.
Fear appeal is said to trigger something called ‘fear arousal’ which is the effect of fear on the brain. This is an evolutionary trait that triggers an unpleasant emotional state when fear is detected so that we respond in a way that helps us to reduce or remove the fear or threat.
How is fear appeal used?
When it comes to fear appeal, the mass media and businesses are experts. More often than not, what we have come to refer to as the ‘mass media’ is actually owned by a few large corporations that largely have political interests at their heart. This can lead to news stories being inflated or particular groups targeted in an attempt to use fear appeal to push forward certain political agendas.
Similarly, when looking at a political manifesto you will often find that politicians frequently draw on the fear factor to push through a desired course of action. In highlighting the terrible things that will happen if a particular policy is not enforced, they are using fear appeal.
When it comes to advertising the use of fear appeal is perhaps more obvious. Businesses use it to draw on the potential fears of consumers in order to persuade them to purchase a certain product. Often such advertising campaigns draw on people’s insecurities in order to draw out the need to buy the product in question.
For instance, adverts about deodorant tell you that if you don’t use their product, you will have sweat stains and a strong unappealing body odor. Skin cream companies will aim to show you how wrinkled your face will look in twenty years’ time if you don’t use their face cream. The list goes on.
However, fear appeal doesn’t necessarily have to be seen in a negative light for it is also used for positive causes. Non-profit organizations will often use fear appeal to generate support for their cause, such as showing the effects of climate change on the planet to encourage a donation or action. Smoking packets now generally have photos of the effects of smoking on them to discourage smokers as a health initiative.
Is using fear effective?
There is a large body of research on the effectiveness of fear appeal with a difference in opinion as to whether it really works. For instance, Goldenbeld et al (2007) found that fear appeal had a counterproductive effect on the participants of their study where it was used in anti-speeding interventions.
It is also the case that some fear appeals go too far in their explicit content. When the imagery or messaging is too graphic then the target audience may actually ignore the information instead of it having the desired effect.
However, a recent study by Tannenbaum et al (2015), which consolidated 127 experiments on fear appeal through a meta-analysis, found that it did have a positive effect on attitudes, intentions, and behaviors.
Interestingly, the analysis found that fear appeal had a greater effect on female message recipients and that the effectiveness of fear appeal increased when the message included efficacy statements, depicted high susceptibility and severity, and recommended one-time-only (vs. repeated) behaviors.
The ethics of using fear
Fear can have a powerful effect on our response and is, therefore, an effective motivator. This raises an important question about the ethics of fear appeal.
There are some that view fear appeal as exploitative and creating a culture in which we are made to fear more than we need to and that contributes to increased anxiety. It can also exploit those who are vulnerable such as the young, ill or those suffering from addiction and demonize target groups of whom the fear factor is based.
There are calls, therefore, for greater controls to be put on advertising campaigns to consider the ethical ramifications of their content. These include better research into the target audience and the short-term and long-term effects using fear appeal will have on them, decide whether a fear appeal is appropriate in that scenario and to consider using alternatives to fear appeals.
Fear appeal is a strong weapon in the hands of mass media, politicians, and advertisers as well as being a powerful force for non-profit campaigns and initiatives to prevent dangerous or unhealthy habits.
Using fear appeal draws on our evolutionary response to fear known as ‘fear arousal’, an unpleasant state which motivates us to do something to alleviate that fear. When it comes to responding to fear appeal, this can lead to us purchasing a specific product, donating to a specific cause, changing an unhealthy habit or voting for a particular political party.
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