Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Negative Emotional Appeals in Advertising

The above commercial is the 50th anniversary advertisement of "ThinkUK's" annual anti-drink drive campaign with the stated aim to remind viewers that although there has been a significant drop in deaths as a result of drink driving since 1967, there are still too many.

The content of the advert utilizes multiple modes of persuasion such as the negativity effect and  loaded imagery, for example the very first scene portraying a horrific car crash is a demonstration of both these tactics, but what most stands out is the contrasting tone of the visuals along with the accompanying soundtrack. An 'Anniversary' is usually associated with something positive and happy and the song "Celebration" by "Kool & The Gang" fits neatly into such an association; yet when put into such a context as is the case in the video it actually seems to reinforce the jarring and frankly disturbing sentiment being presented.

What all these techniques amount to is a powerful example of an Emotional Appeal effect. Strong emotional appeals within persuasive content have been found "to facilitate the adoption of some recommended behaviour" (Dillard & Peck, 2000). It is clear from the type of commercial that the creators are looking to induce a withdrawal motivation in viewers, in other words, avoidance behaviour with regards to drinking and driving. One line of thought is that emotions, both positive and negative serve as heuristics that allow us to make decisions with a low level of information processing  so when we experience negative emotions as a result of some stimuli we inhibit certain actions that may lead to the aversive outcomes that elicited our negative arousal in the first place (Fry, 2006).

In this example specifically, the type of emotional appeal that appears to be dominant (but not exclusive) in the advert is a Fear Appeal. The strong visual content, contrasting tones of message and sound, depictions of suffering, emergency treatment and at the end one of loss and complete shock all lend themselves to arousing some base feeling of fear and discomfort, if for nothing else, the fact that it could happen to us or someone we know. Dillard & Peck (2000) conducted a study to determine the extent to which emotional appeals as well as other factors affect how we perceive and judge the effectiveness of a message.

They did this by exposing participants in the study to eight different PSAs (public service announcements), after each viewing they were asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their cognitive (what they thought about the PSA message, i.e. agree/disagree) and emotional (how strongly they felt about the PSA message, i.e. felt [very] angry/guilty/sad etc.) responses to what they had just seen, this process was repeated for each PSA. The experiment also involved 3 different conditions; the first labelled as the 'heuristic-enabled' condition whereby the participants were told just before viewing that the researchers were interested in their subjective reactions to the content ("Let feelings be your guide"), the second was the 'heuristic-disabled' condition where participants were told prior to viewing that the researchers were interested in their objective evaluation of the PSA separate to the feelings it aroused in them ("Be as objective as you can"). The final condition was a control (neutral-condition) where participants were not given any additional directions before viewing.

They found that there was no significant difference between the neutral, heuristic enabled and disabled condition when it came to judgements of the messages' effectiveness on the basis of how one feels about the message. In other words even if you are primed to use your feelings more in a message judgement task, it makes no significant difference to your overall evaluation of it.

Their other findings bear more relevance to the ThinkUK advertisement though, particularly that the emotions aroused from the PSA "manifested a significant impact on judgments of persuasiveness" and that one's dominant cognitive response (whether they support issue or not) also has a considerable impact upon the perceived message effectiveness.

The figure below is a modelling of the causal impact of emotional and cognitive response upon one's judgement of message effectiveness and how this in turn influences the attitude towards the issue highlighted (in the PSAs in this case). As can be seen, the emotional and cognitive values were all significant in bringing about a judgement on how persuasive the message was (ranging from 0.15 to 0.46).

The study's findings therefore provide a succinct account of why the ThinkUK advert is so powerful, as all sensible people will have a dominant cognitive response to the issue of drunk driving that is overwhelmingly against it, which is what the commercial promotes. And the advert arouses various emotions within us outlined earlier - such as fear and surprise - which were also found to have a considerable impact upon how we judge the message.

In conclusion the adverts stylistic presentation and striking juxtaposition of a happy melody with profoundly negative scenes lends itself particularly effectively to eliciting a strong emotional arousal and its employment of a message with which we can all agree makes the persuasiveness of the message very rich and particularly hard to ignore or dismiss.

Dillard, James P., and Eugenia Peck. (2001). "Persuasion and the structure of affect." Human Communication Research 27.1: 38-68.

Fry, Mary-Louise. (2006). "Message Processing of Fear-based Anti-drink Driving Advertisements." Brisbane: Queensland University of Technology

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