Advertising Principles - Evidence-based principles

How to use fear to persuade: New evidence

Research on mass communications during WWII concluded that mild fear was more persuasive than strong fear. Later research challenged this finding. A Glossary Link meta-analysis of 98 experimental and non-experimental studies confirmed that strong fear is more effective (Witte & Allen 2000).

Sunstein and Zeckhauser (2011) found even stronger support. They concluded that fear is much more likely to be aroused by describing vivid and fearful consequences than by stressing that the harmful event is likely. To the extent that emphasis is placed on a possible fearful outcome, people tend to ignore the probability of such an event. This leads to irrational decisions.

In addition, action with respect to a message of fear is more likely when blame can be ascribed to others (e.g., corporations or foreigners) and when the person has no control over the event (dying in an airplane crash versus when driving an automobile). Their paper views the findings in light of major events such as global warming, hazardous waste sites like Love Canal, and so on. For example, the Three-Mile Island problem, for which the Kemeny Commission estimated one death, led to a cancellation of new nuclear plants in the U.S. for 30 years. Given the powerful persuasive effects of strong fear, the U.S. government revoked their policy of requiring descriptions of worst possible outcomes for events of very low probability, as people are likely to over-react. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld this and require consideration of low-probability events but only if they are not speculative (Robertson v. Mathow Valley Citizens Council (1989), 49- US 332, 354-356).

Sunstein, Cass R. & R. Zeckhauser (2011),Overreaction to fearsome risks,” Environmental and Resource Economics, 48, 435-449.

Witte, Kim & Mike Allen (2000), “A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns,” Health Education and Behavior, 27, 591-615.


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