Fear Appeal in Advertising: Theory, Examples & Quiz

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Shawn Grimsley

Fear can be a powerful motivator, and advertisers know it. In this lesson, you'll learn about fear appeal in advertising and the theory behind it. Examples will also be provided. You'll also have a chance to take a short quiz.

We also recommend watching Types of Advertising: Institutional and Product Advertising and How Public Relations is Different from Advertising

Definition

A fear appeal in advertising is a message that is designed to scare the intended audience by describing a serious threat to them. The advertising tactic is to motivate the intended audience to engage or not engage in certain behavior based upon a fear.

Theory

Many theories have been proposed regarding fear appeal, including the fear-as-acquired drive model, parallel process model, and protection motivation theory. However, a theory that takes the best of some of the other theories, extends the research, and helps explain the effectiveness of an appeal to fear is the extended parallel process model (EPPM).

EPPM is concerned about how perceived threats and perceived efficacy can cause behavioral change based upon fear. According to the theory, a perceived threat consists of perceived susceptibility, which is your perception of the probability of the threat actually occurring, and perceived severity, which is your perception of the seriousness of the threat. Perceived efficacy consists of response-efficacy, which is how you perceived the safety and effectiveness of the recommended response to the threat, and self-efficacy, which is how easy or simply you believe you can engage in the recommended course of action. Basically, the theory argues that the perceived threat determines the motivation to act and the perceived efficacy determines in what way you will act.

According to the theory, appeal to fear will only be effective if there is a strong perceived threat and a strong efficacy component. Let's look at possible responses to an appeal to fear message.

  • No response. If the perceived susceptibility is low or the perceived severity of the consequences is low, then you will not respond in the manner the advertisement message desires. You either just don't think the danger will happen or it won't be that bad if it does happen.
  • Fear control response. In this situation, the perceived threat is greater than the perceived efficacy. In other words, you may believe that you are susceptible to a threat and believe that it will have severe consequences, but you don't believe that the recommended action will be effective to prevent the harm or you don't believe you have the ability to take effective action against the threat. In this case, you will attempt to reduce your fear rather than the danger. You may decide to just ignore the threat or convince yourself the threat is not real.
  • Danger control response. If you believe the perceived threat is high, the recommended action will be effective and believe you can effectively engage in the action, then you will tend to pursue the recommended action. In other words, the fear advertising will be successful in getting you to do what it wants you to do.

Examples

Let's take a look at some examples of three types of advertising that will utilize appeal to fear: political advertising, public health advertising, and commercial advertising.

  • Political advertising. Imagine that you are an incumbent president seeking reelection. Your country is in the middle of a violent war. Your campaign manager runs a series of political ads trying to scare voters into voting for you because voting for your opponent will put the troops (the sons, daughters, spouses and grandchildren of voters) in harm's way because your opponent has no military background.
  • Public health advertising. Perhaps the classic example of appeal to fear is the 'This is Your Brain' anti-drug advertising campaign where a narrator tells the viewers that an egg is your brain, and a hot frying pan is drugs. The egg is then cracked and fried while the narrator tells us that the frying egg is 'your brain on drugs.'
  • Commercial advertising. Common examples include condom commercials that save you from STDs or unwanted pregnancies and the ever-present pharmaceutical commercials that offer to save you from a myriad of painful medical conditions. Of course, you can see advertisements for safety equipment such as helmets and fire extinguishers preventing tragic injury and death. And let's not forget about life insurance advertising that offers to protect your family and love ones from the financial consequences of your very demise.

Summary

Advertisers will use fear as a means of motivating its audience to engage in certain behavior whether it be voting for a particular candidate, making smart health decisions or buying certain products. EPPM is a theoretical model that attempts to explain fear response and is based on a person's perceived susceptibility to the threat and the person's perceived ability to effectively diminish the threat or the harmful consequences of it. If perceived susceptibility and efficacy is high, a person is more likely to engage in the behavior recommended by the advertising message.

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