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.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The fear of embarrassment: Colgate Plax advert


Colgate is a line of oral hygiene products, including toothpastes, mouthwash, and floss. In this advertisement Colgate uses a fear appeal. It does this by suggesting that the man in the photo has bad breath, and that everyone is aware of this embarrassing fact except him. He is an average looking man, and this makes it seem like an event which could happen to anyone. The severity of the outcome if the product is not used is also shown- the man is literally labelled, and everyone knows it, showing the severe embarrassing consequences of the problem. The advertisement has a small picture of its product in the bottom corner; to highlight that Colgate Plax is the remedy for the embarrassing situation of bad breath which the audience now fears.  This is a simple and easy solution, showing the ease with which the target can prevent the feared situation.

A study by Maddux and Rogers (1983) investigated some of the tactics used above in the fear appeal. They aimed to look into the effects of the probability of the feared event’s occurrence, the effectiveness of the perceived remedy, the severity of the threat’s outcome, and their self-efficacy expectancy for performing the coping response. They used 153 undergraduates who all smoked at least 10 cigarettes a day for more than a year in their experiment. The participants were given materials from one of the four conditions (high or low probability of event occurrence, high or low effectiveness of remedy, high or low severity of threat outcome, high or low self-efficacy for performing outcome response), and were asked to read them then answer a questionnaire.

The materials were educational essays on cigarette smoking, which either supported the conclusion that cigarette smoking was likely or unlikely to lead to lung cancer and heart disease, that stopping smoking was likely or unlikely to eliminate or reduce risk for these conditions, that lung and heart disease are or are not serious conditions and that the reader would have either little difficulty or great difficulty reducing or eliminating cigarette smoking. They also measured their participant’s intention to stop smoking, their belief they would develop health problems from smoking, the severity of these problems, the probability to prevent the problems by quitting smoking and their ability to quit smoking. A measure of their fear was also added. This was done by giving participants a short questionnaire after the essays.

The results are summarized in the table below:




They found that participants in the high-probability essay condition showed greater expectancies of developing the ill effects of smoking than participants given the low-probability essays. Those shown the high-efficacy essay demonstrated more expectancy for avoiding ill effects by quitting smoking than those in the low-efficacy condition. Participants given high-severity essays rated the outcomes of smoking as more severe and dangerous than did participants exposed to the low-severity essays. Finally, participants who read the high self-efficacy essay had higher expectations about their ability to give up smoking than those in the low self-efficacy communication condition. The analysis of the fear reports showed that the high-severity essay produced greater feelings of fear than the low-severity essay did.

Not only did self-efficacy expectancy significantly influence intentions to adopt the recommended remedy (quitting smoking), but self-efficacy expectancy proved to be the most powerful predictor of behavioral intentions. Colgate highlighting the simplicity of using the mouthwash to fix the problem of bad breath is a good example of inducing high self-efficacy to fix a problem, which is portrayed as having very sever embarrassing consequences.  


Maddux, J. E., & Rogers, R. W. (1983). Protection motivation and self-efficacy: A revised theory of fear appeals and attitude change. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 19(5), 469-479

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