Can fear be used to persuade? Can you be convinced and can your behaviour change because you are afraid of the consequences of a specific behaviour? This theory is called the “fear appeal” theory.
A fear appeal is a way of exposing the risks of using or not using a specific product, service or idea. It relies on a threat to the well-being of an individual that motivates him or her to take action and modify their behaviour.
Road safety campaigns certainly use fear appeals a lot, explicitly seeking to shock and frighten the audience to create a feeling of exposure to risk and threat to the individual's well being. This is a strong way of getting the viewer’s attention and create a strong and long lasting memory of the promoted message.
This particular video is part of a french road safety campaign focused on the necessity of the seatbelt for both front and backseat passengers.
In order for fear to be efficient in persuasion, it has to be relatable. In this video, the audience can relate immediately to this common scene of four friends in a car. A woman talks to the audience as a way of capturing the viewer’s full attention, “Something was forgotten in this car”. And right before the crash and the backseat passenger dies, the same voice says “Did you find what is missing? The seatbelt”.
The aim here is to show to the viewer the possible consequences of not wearing a seatbelt, not wearing a seatbelt can be fatal.
The use of fear and shock in such campaigns is based on the finding that when people feel fearful, they are motivated to reduce fear, threat or danger; most likely by complying with the suggested behaviour; in this case, fastening the seatbelt. (Keller, 1999) The literature also states that the more frightened a person is by a fear appeal, the more likely they will take positive preventing actions. As nothing is more frightening than death for most people, the risk of death should be very efficient in modifying people’s behaviour. (Hovland, et al., 1953)
Two cognitive processes underlie the way people respond to a threat: threat appraisal and coping appraisal (Lazarus, 1991) This is why, in order for a fear appeal to be effective in changing people’s behaviour, it should contain both the threat itself and coping efficacy information. (Rogers, 1975; 1983) That way, the level of fear felt by the individual is manageable as he is also given information about adaptive behavioural responses. If the individual feels powerless to change the behaviour, the fear appeal will not be efficient.
This may be one of the reasons why the signs, prevention messages and shocking images on cigarette packs remain quite inefficient in changing people’s behaviour. It may state that smoking kills, but since it does not indicate any specific methods to quit smoking, the fear appeal that is intended to modify people’s behaviour is not as efficient as if an adaptive behavioural response was mentioned alongside the threatening message on the pack.
Williams, K. C. (2012). Fear Appeal Theory.
Keller, P. A. (1999). Converting the Unconverted: The Effect of Inclination and Opportunity to
Discount Health-Related Fear Appeals. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(3), 403-415.
Rogers, R. W. (1975). A Protection Motivation Theory of Fear Appeals and Attitude Change. Journal of Psychology, 91(1), 93-114.
Rogers, R. W. (1983). Cognitive and Physiological Processes in Fear Appeals and Attitude Change: A Revised Theory of Protection Motivation. Social Psychophysiology, J. Cacciopo and R. Petty, eds., New York: Guilford Press.
Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and Adaptation, New York: Oxford University Press.
Hovland, C. I., Janis, I. L. and Kelley, H. H. (1953). Communication and Persuasion:Psychological Studies of Obvious Change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.