Behaviour Change

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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

When Fear Appeal Fails

The advert above “Be careful not to cut your stoma” is one that I find quite shocking and somewhat disturbing to look at. The technique that the advertisers are trying to use here is fear appeal. They are attempting to link an undesired action, in this case smoking, with a severely negative consequence; having a stoma, a surgically created opening in the throat. It is thought that the arousal of fear will create an aversive state in the person looking at the advert that must be avoided, by stopping the undesirable action targeted. In this case I feel that the advert may be creating too much fear, so much so that people will simply avoid looking at the advert, thus not reading the information below about why they should stop smoking. They may simply switch off to the image.

In a study by Keller (1999) it was found that people who were unconverted to the cause in question (in the case of the experiment the adverts were health related brochures) participants were more likely to be persuaded by adverts that aroused low levels of fear. Whereas those who were already converted to the cause were more likely to be persuaded by the moderately fear arousing adverts, as shown in Table 1. The unconverted participants had higher mean scores for persuasion after viewing the lower fear appeal advert compared to the moderately fear arousing advert. In the experiment they measured persuasion on a 7-item scale of how likely to person would be to comply with the message they had just read about in the brochure. As also shown in Table 1 the unconverted were less persuaded by the moderately fear arousing message in terms of lower susceptibility to the brochure, lower response efficacy and more refutations, as well as less supportive thoughts, in comparison to the low fear condition. This demonstrates on a number of different scales how for people who are unconverted to a message lower levels f fear in advertising are more persuasive.

Table 1 

In terms of the anti-smoking advert above then this research suggests that the fear used may be too strong to get those who are smokers, and therefore unconverted, to be persuaded by the advert. As the research suggests an advert that is low in fear appeal would be more persuasive in getting people to stop smoking. The advert above may simply do more in terms of scaring people away from the message, than scaring them into quitting smoking.


Keller, P. A. (1999). Converting the unconverted: The effect of inclination and opportunity to discount health related fear appeals. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 403-415.  

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