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Fear Appeals and Their Impact

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“Fear Appeals and Their Impact” Joshua H. Myers University of Colorado Denver


Fear Appeals and Their Impact

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Fear appeals are a technique that can be found in many persuasive messages. In my paper I identify what a fear appeal is, how fear appeals work, the three different levels of fear appeal: High, moderate, and low, and provide an analysis of fear appeal in an antidrug advertisement. Fear appeals are persuasive messages that play on a person’s emotions and identifies the harmful consequences if the targeted audience does not comply with the recommended message. Through using fear appeals, advertisers are able to persuade their targeted audiences to their desired outcome. Fear appeals are a technique used by persuaders that is more commonly found in advertisements in present day. I concluded that fear appeals work and are effective when they are designed effectively.


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Human beings on a daily basis encounter numerous forms of persuasion. Persuasion is presented in various forms and works best when human beings are not aware of the persuasion taking place. Omar Swartz states “ Persuasion permeates everything we do and are: When you get up, drive/walk to campus, talk to friends, attend classes, seek advice, open your mail, wherever you go (Notes, pg. 4). Persuasion cannot be escaped whether by direct or indirect means. A form of persuasion that is more commonly adopted in present day advertising is fear appeal. This form of persuasion plays on people’s emotions in order to create a change in their behavior. Fear appeals can be found in many advertisements, especially in anti-drug, health promotion, and political advertisements. Fear appeals consist of three different levels: High, moderate, and low. In my paper I will identify the theory of fear appeal, how fear appeals work, and the three different levels of fear appeal. I will also examine and analyze an advertisement involving the use of both moderate and high fear appeals. I chose an advertisement that is anti-drug related and can be found on Colorado’s Methamphetamine Project website. The goal of this website is to inform kids of the danger that using crystal methamphetamine can have. Many advertisements on this web site use fear appeal in order to accomplish their goal- to persuade. The advertisement I will analyze is an anti methamphetamine drug use commercial that is targeted to teenage kids. By analyzing this advertisement, I will illustrate how the use of fear appeal was applied and the impact it has on its targeted audience.

What Is Fear Appeal? To understand fear appeal we must first define fear. According to dictionary.com


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fear is defined as a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid. When human beings experience fear, emotions change inside of them. People react to fear differently. Advertisers have studied the affects of fear on people and found that different levels of fear can cause certain changes in people’s emotions, which will result in a change in their attitudes and behaviors. Knowing this, advertisers use it to their advantage which influences the way advertisements are created. Geller defines fear appeal as “ a persuasive message that attempts to direct and motivate certain behaviors by focusing on the harmful physical or psychological consequences that can be avoided by complying with message recommendations (p.1). By labeling these negative consequences, which could occur from not complying with the message people tend to have a shift in attitude towards their beliefs on a particular subject. Lane (2001) states, “As a theory, fear appeals explains how fear can be used as a motivator for positive behavior, a reaction, or even lifestyle change. This theory is very useful among those who must persuade others to make a change in their life when they really do not want to” (p.1). According to Witte and Allen (2000), fear appears to be a great motivator as long as individuals believe that they are able to protect themselves.” (As cited in Williams, Briley, Grier, Henderson, p. 2). Fear appeals require a substantial amount of planning and time in order for it to be effective. Advertisements that contain fear appeals must be designed very carefully to ensure that the audience does not dismiss them. It is hard to design an affective fear appeal because people have different levels of fear. Something that may threaten one person may not threaten another at all. This is an important factor to take into


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consideration when trying to determine how the targeted audience will view a fear appeal. Research by Girandola (2000) suggests that several variables are particularly important which must be simultaneously taken into account if one wants to set up an effective fear-persuasive communication campaign. These variables include the description of the threat, prevention or detection behaviors as responses, self-efficacy or individual's belief in his or her ability to perform the recommended response to the threat, danger and fear control processes and their impact on subsequent attitude and behavior, and past behaviors (p.5).

How Does Fear Appeals Work? Geller identifies that fear appeals contain two main components: a threat component and an action component. He states: The threat component is the motivating aspect of a fear appeal. An effective scare tactic must convince the audiences that particular negative consequences can occur if certain behaviors are not performed. The more fear aroused, the more potential motivation to comply with the message. (p.2) Geller opines that without a threat component a fear appeal would not be able to work, as it is the driving force behind fear appeal. Fear appeal works by identifying a consequence by not complying with a message and making the targeted audience change their attitude in order to avoid the consequences. By advertisers targeting the negative consequences involved with not complying with the message that they are making, the viewers feel they need to change their attitude or else they will be become a victim or even an outcast. This is due to the discomfort of the fear created by what the message is portraying. According to Leventhal (1971) “When people are faced with danger, they


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prefer to do something rather than nothing, and they always prefer the most effective means of control regardless of the intensity of their emotions� (p.1213). Fear appeals are created to relate on a personal level to the targeted audience. This is why many fear appeals are effective. When something affects someone personally most of the time, the person tends to analyze what can be done to benefit him or her. In this case these people will determine what they need to do to eliminate the fear. Examples of this can be seen in advertisements all around the world. For example, this is evident when looking at Axe body wash commercials on TV. In these advertisements Axe body wash creates the idea that if you do not use their product that you will smell bad and affect the people around you. This is labeled as the fear. As a consequence of smelling bad people will not want to be around the person who does not use their product. As a further consequence, people will not have many friends. The fear of smelling bad and not having people want to be around them is the driving force behind the cause of a change. Geller defines the second component of fear appeal is the action component. He states, “The target audience needs to believe they have the ability to follow the messages' recommendations, and that the behavioral strategy specified in the fear appeal can eliminate or at least reduce the threat� (p.2). It is important that the fear appeal is realistic and can feasibly be accomplished by the targeted audience. When fear appeals are viewed as outrageous they are dismissed by the audience and their attitude does not change. Having a realistic fear appeal will persuade viewers a lot easier and will make them more susceptible to create change in their attitudes. This is the reason why it is important to determine the level of fear appeal that is going to be used in a persuasive


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message.

Levels Of Fear Appeal The choice of words used in advertisements to create the level of fear appeal is important. Depending on the words chosen and portrayed in a specific advertisement will help determine the level of the fear appeal. This choice of words used in advertisements relates to another persuasion theory called slanting. According to Swartz slanting is selecting moderate language to enhance what/who we like and negative language to denigrate what we dislike (Notes, pg.45). All levels of fear appeals involve a degree of slanting to enhance the probability of their desired outcome. Advertisements involving all three levels of fear appeal use different words to persuade the audience in different ways. Word choice is important and by using specific words to enhance and negate specific advertisements, different goals can be achieved by the persuader. This is especially true because people have various feelings and reactions to words. Fear appeal consists of three different levels: High fear appeal, moderate fear appeal, and low fear appeal. Each level is distinct from one another and is made up by different components. It is important to determine the level of fear appeal in which the advertiser is going to use in order to be most effective in persuading the audience. High fear appeals are the most extreme form of the three appeals. This fear appeal illustrates fears at the highest level that in fact sometimes people do not even believe that the consequences could even occur. High fear appeals get dismissed many times because fear appeals have to be believable to work. This type of fear appeal is presented to the viewers in a way that the consequences of not complying with the message are so drastic that they can change ones life substantially. According to Swartz


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(2009) in high fear appeal we are faced with the dire repercussions of our actions (p.259). High fear appeals are effective depending on the outcome the persuader desires. These appeals are normally effective when used in anti-drug campaigns, or in any advertisement that labels severe consequences by not complying with their message. In contrast, this type of fear appeal would be very ineffective as a tool used to promote a product such as buying Axe body wash or Crest toothpaste. High fear appeal uses harsh language to create the highest degree of fear possible in people with the hope to create change. Moderate fear appeals can be labeled as the middle of the three fear appeals. These fear appeals relate more to people and are identified as being more believable than high fear appeals. This type of fear appeal tends to normally be more effective than high fear appeals as the consequences are more believable. As a result, people tend to comply and listen to moderate fear appeal messages more easily. The language used in moderate fear appeals is not as harsh as the high fear appeals. Language in moderate fear appeal messages tends to be more persuasive than high fear appeal. Moderate fear appeals are used in advertisements where the audiences have been exposed to the subject matter before. In many moderate fear appeal messages, the audience sees some relevance in the message that the persuader is trying to make. Also, the targeted audience will experience counter persuasion to the persuader, as they may have had their own experiences that has shaped their views. Having these three factors as pre-existing conditions that the persuaders has to face, advertisers know that they need to create a more realistic and believable advertisement in order to achieve their goal. At this level of persuasion, advertisers tend to persuade the audience by giving them a choice. As we saw in high fear appeal the persuader was demanding that change needs to occur or one may be


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negatively affected. This is not the case with moderate fear appeals. Here the persuader communicates their views and identifies the choice the audience should make, but the persuader is not forcing change upon the audience. For example, a high fear appeal message promoting the use of seat belts in cars may say, “buckle up or die.” In contrast, a moderate fear appeal message may state “buckle up for safety, it could save your life.” In both statements the use of seat belts is being promoted. In the high fear appeal, the message the persuaders are demanding and forcibly asserting is that one needs to buckle up or one may die. Many times this will get dismissed because of the counter persuasion. In contrast, the moderate fear appeal message is giving the audience the option to make an informed choice. In doing so, the audience can think about the message and they can make a choice based on there own inferences. Low fear appeals are the last of the three fear appeals. These fear appeals tend to be the least intensive and evasive of the three fear appeals. In contrast to high fear appeals, the words used in this type of fear appeal are not as intimidating or demanding. According to Swartz, low fear appeals are necessary when the audience has had a great deal of exposure to the message and if the audiences feel exceedingly vulnerable (Notes, pg. 41). He opines that these types of fear appeals are most effective when the action required is more simple and easy to accomplish. Many times low fear appeals in advertisements will ask the audience a question. Doing this will allow the audience to question themselves by influencing the audience to think if what they are currently doing is correct or if they need to change their behavior? In contrast to high fear appeals, the audience sees a high relevance in the message of the persuader. It is important to determine these factors and assess the targeted audience when creating a fear appeal


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message.

Fear Appeal In Anti-Drug Advertisements Fear appeal messages are commonly found in many anti-drug campaigns. According to Koningsbruggen and Das (2006), health promotion campaigns often use fear appeals to motivate people to change unhealthy behaviors (p.3). Depending on the targeted audiences and pre-existing conditions an audience may all ready have been exposed to the subject matter which will determine the type of fear appeal used. Many persuaders feel that fear appeals is effective in promoting anti-drug campaigns, as it will create a behavioral change in the targeted audience. Many anti-drug campaigns involve the effective use of both high and moderate levels of fear appeal. Crystal methamphetamine is a drug that is being used in American society at a very rapid rate and is a major target for organizations that are promoting anti-drug use. Many times organizations will persuade their targeted audiences through the use of fear appeal message on billboards and commercials. The advertisement I am going to analyze can be found on the Colorado’s Methamphetamine Project website. The link to this website is http://www.coloradomethproject.org/View_Ads/index.php and it is the first video titled “Junkie den.� The goal of this advertisement is to stop teenagers from using crystal methamphetamine. They are trying to accomplish this by using fear appeal in their advertisements to show the consequences that could occur from using this substance. This commercial contains many elements that illustrate the use of both high and moderate fear appeal. The commercial first starts off with two boys sitting next to each other. One boy looks nervous and unsure of himself, the situations he is in, and about the


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decisions that he is about to be forced to make. The commercial contains elements of moderate fear appeal as this allowed the persuaders to illustrate that this scenario is very real and probable scenario for two teenage kids to be involved in. Doing this allows the audience to feel and think that this really could happen to them. Showing a boy who looks nervous allows the audience to see the emotions that occur when a young boy is in this troubling situation. This is effective because by showing how the boy is uncomfortable will create fear in teenage kids. Creating this type of fear allows teenagers many times to resist the use of the drug and makes them think this is a dangerous and unhealthy situation. This is important in this advertisement in order to create change because the persuader wants the audience to view this situation as being realistic and possible to encounter throughout one's life. Following this the boy has a pipe up to his mouth and asks his friend, “Are you sure?” right before he was going to smoke the methamphetamine and his friends replied, “yeah just go.” The other boy seems comfortable and it appears that he has done crystal methamphetamine before as he is giving it to his friend and instructing him on how to use it. This illustrates how the advertisement is using counter persuasion to persuade the viewers. Through counter persuasion, the persuader shows that even though the audience knows it is bad to do drugs and they may not want to do them, there are still outside factors that will influence the audiences' decisions. This creates fear in the viewer as they see that if they were put into a situation like this that they would experience pressure from others that would influence their decisions. This illustrates that when people are under pressure that they do not always make the right decision. Having these outside pressure may prevent a person in this situation from making the decisions that they truly


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desire. Illustrating the pressure that the boy is under creates fear in the audience and is effective in order to make the audience to turn away from situations likes this. In this case it was his friend telling him that he would be okay and to take a hit. Even though the boy was uncertain of his decision he was reaffirmed by his friend's input even though he knew it is wrong to try the drug. What is important in this advertisement is the fear factor and the influence people have on one’s decision even though it may not be one’s belief. Letting the audience see how one can influence their decision-making will allow the viewer to know that there are factors that are going to influence their decision. By identifying these factors in the commercial, the audience can see the fear factor and take it into consideration and realize what could happen if put in a situation like this one. The boy then takes a hit of the crystal methamphetamine and he is now staring at junkies all around him. The commercial then shows the physical appearance of the junkies and their poor appearance, which demonstrates that they have been crystal methamphetamine users for a long time. The junkies portrayed here look horrific and have scabs all over their face as a result of scratching themselves as a side effect of the drug. They are also shown as not being well groomed and they have yellow teeth. These junkies look as if they have not taken a shower or done anything to clean themselves up in a long time. This part of the commercial can be labeled as the threat component. By showing the audience the negative side effects from using the drug, the persuader is attempting to scare their audience with the goal of having them not use the drug. Showing the appearance of the junkies creates fear in the audience. This fear is that ones appearance and life will change drastically by using this drug. Physical appearance is important for many people as it is part of our non-verbal communication. People fear


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that if they use this drug others will start to view the users' appearance and behavior as unacceptable in society. Having this fear of being unacceptable and bad is implemented into this commercial to turn people away from using this drug. Health is important to many people and by showing how ones health and physical appearance will change for the worse, the audience will fear that this could happen to them. As the commercial shows these different junkies they are all saying different things to the boy. The junkies are telling the boy, “you did it kid, your in, your one of use now, all of this is yours, we are going to be shooting up together, we are going to steal together, sleep together, you are going to love every single minute of it.” This part of the commercial illustrates aspects of how a high fear appeal message is used. Through using these selected words the persuaders are telling the audience that if they even just take one hit of this drug, their life will not be the same. These words used here create fear in the audience for many reasons. Some of these changes that the audience may fear consists of stealing in order to be able to get money to afford the drug, losing friends because they do not agree with what one is doing, and that ones morals and outlook will change. The commercial then pans back to the boy after he is being bombarded with all of the changes he is going to experience that the junkies are identifying to him. The boy looks overwhelmed and acts as if he made the wrong decision. He can no longer stand to listen to what the junkies are telling him and he responds, “No, I am trying it just this once.” Then the commercial pans back to the junkies and they break out into laughter because they know that no one can just try the drug just once. This scene further illustrates elements of high fear appeal. This is what the commercial is implying that all it takes to become hooked onto this drug is trying it just one time. Identifying this to the


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viewers will allow them to know that this is not a joking matter and if you do try this drug once your life can completely change. Showing the junkies laughing at the boy is further evidence that the boy just cannot try the drug once. These junkies tried the drug at some point in their life for the first time and now they are hooked. Showing this to the audience allows them to see what one's life could potentially be like in the future if they use this drug. In this advertisement a combination of both high and moderate fear appeal were used in order to create an effective advertisement promoting anti-drug use.

Conclusion Persuasion is encountered on an everyday basis by human beings. Fear appeal is a common form of persuasion that can be found in many advertisements. Knowing your targeted audience and the message the persuader wishes to make is the first task of the persuader. The persuader decides which type of fear appeal to utilize or a combination of them in order to attempt through advertising to identify the consequences to the audience if they do not comply with the message that the advertisement is conveying. There are two main factors that allow fear appeal to work namely the threat component and the action component. Fear appeal contains three different levels and in each type of fear appeal different elements can be found. It is important to determine the level of fear appeal used in creating messages in order for them to be effective. Through the use of fear persuaders are able to achieve their desired goals for the targeted audiences. The final outcome on the nature and type of advertisement is the result of various opinions, studies and strategy sessions. Fear appeals are effective and work at their best when they make the audience think about what could occur by not complying with the persuaders’ message and how their life will be affected. The advertisement I analyzed that is found


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on Colorado’s Methamphetamine Project webpage is a perfect example of how fear appeal is used in order to turn people away from using drugs. In this case through the use of designing an effective fear appeal the persuader is able to create a change in attitudes towards using this drug. This was accomplished through the use of both high and moderate fear appeals. Fear appeals are a form of persuasion that is more commonly used today in order to create change in the audience.


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Fear. (n.d.) . In dictionary.com online. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fear Geller, S. E. (n .d. ). Designing an effective fear appeal. Retrieved from http://safetyperformance.com/pdf/Articles/2001/DesigninganEffectiveFear Appeal.pdf Girandola, Fabien (2000), “Fear and Persuasion: Review And Re-Analysis of the Literature (1953-1998),” Annee Psychologique, 100 (2), June, 333-376. Lane, Derek R. (2001) “Honors: Communication Capstone, Spring 2001 Theory Workbook,” http://www.uky.edu/~drlane/capstone/helath/fear.htm.,as retrieved on July 31, 2003 at 3:42 p.m. Leventhal, H. (1971). Fear appeals and persuasion: the differntiation of motivational construct. American journal of public health, 61(6), Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.gov/pmc/articles/instance/1529874/ Swartz, O. (2009). Persuasion as a critical activity: Application and engagement. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt. Van Koningsbruggen, G., & Das, E. (2006). Understanding the Persuasiveness of Fear Appeals: The Effects of Self-affirmation. Conference Papers – International Communication Association, 1-16. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database. Williams, J.D., Briley, D.A., Grier, S.A., & Henderson, G.R. (n.d.). Fear Appeals between and within culture. Retrieved from http://www.safetyperformance.com /pdf/Articles/2001/DesigninganEffectiveFearAppeal.pdf


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