Fear appeals are now widely used not only to sell merchandise but to promote issues like health, security, financial safety and other things. LaTour, Snipes and Bliss noted that:
“In using fear appeals, some negative behavior is usually associated with a negative effect, like smoking and lung cancer, or a positive behavior, unpracticed, is associated with a negative effect, like brushing teeth and cavities” (1996, cited in Mayfield, 2006).
Over the years, several theories have been developed that thought to have influenced the swaying effect of fear appeals. One of these theories is the Protection Motivation Theory (PMT) which suggests that: “the intention to protect one’s self depends upon four factors: the perceived severity of a threatened event, perceived probability of the occurrence or vulnerability, efficacy of the recommended preventive behavior and perceived self-efficacy” (Anon., 2010).
“Roger’s PMT is one of the most cited theories in fear appeal studies (Okazaki and Chung, n.d.). PMT revolves around two cognitive developments: threat and coping appraisals. These two sets of appraisals take place in an order: an individual must initially believe that a threat applies to himself / herself, then consider a preventive behavior.
“That is when people face a threat or hazard, they use the threat-appraisal process to evaluate the variable related to the potentially harmful responses, and the coping-appraisal process to evaluate their ability to cope with and avert the threat” (Rogers 1983, cited in Okazaki and Chung, n.d.)
PMT is one model that has been successful in understanding, explaining and shifting health behaviors, which is why it has been extensively used to study various fear appeal campaigns. The anti-smoking campaign in the United States is a good case study where PMT has been utilized to gather the impact of the campaign, especially in teenagers. Tanner et al.’s ordered PMT model “suggested that consumers are exposed to fear appeals in ads, and these stimulate the initiation of threat appraisal. The exogenous latent constructs are degree of smoking, threat appraisal, and coping appraisal” (1991, cited in Okazaki and Chung, n.d.). In a further study, Pechmann et al. (2003) using the components of the PMT, evaluated the effects of different message themes in antismoking advertisements targeted at adolescents. Their results showed that only three of the of the seven antismoking message themes they have tested strengthened teenagers’ intentions not to smoke and “all did so by conveying that smoking cigarettes poses severe social disapproval risks” (p. 11).
On the basis of their research findings, Pechmann et al. (2003) suggested that norm-based appeals are more effective in influencing adolescents’ behavior than other kinds of appeals and that antismoking organizations, including governments, should consider these kinds of appeals if they want their campaign to produce consistent positive results. Their study also showed that when youths are targeted, advertisements that stress health risk vulnerabilities rather than severity, works more effectively and therefore when using health based appeals; they suggest that the appeals must convey that teenagers are extremely susceptible to smoking’s health risks (Pechmann et al., 2003). This type of appeal almost guarantees an increase in adolescents’ intentions not to smoke, especially those who feel capable of refusing cigarette offers from their peers. In this case, PMT has provided useful information to researchers as well as antismoking and health organisations when considering an antismoking campaign in the future.
Another theory that has been developed to better understand the impact of fear on persuasion and therefore also better figure out how to use it in addressing the public in various issues is the parallel response model. Later called the parallel process model, this model was developed by Leventhal in the 1970s based on Hovland and Janis’ work (Hovland, et al., 1953, Janis, 1967, cited in Witte, 1992). This model focused on cognitive rather than emotional processes and suggests that “protective adaptive behavior stemmed from attempts to control the danger or threat (cognitions), not from attempts to control the fear (emotions)” (Leventhal, 1970, cited in Witte, 1992). This means that if individuals considered the menacing message and acted on that particular message so as to prevent the threat or danger from happening, they were “engaging in danger control processes” (Witte, 1992). On the other hand, if individuals considered their fears and do something to control them, they are engaged in fear control processes (Witte, 1992). This particular model provided valuable difference between cognitive and emotional response to fear appeals.
An excellent case for a fear appeal campaign is the large scale campaign by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) entitled This Is Your Brain on Drugs. The campaign was launched in 1987 and utilized two public service announcements (PSA) on television as well as a related poster campaign. The campaign wanted to show the effects of the drugs on teenagers’ brains by comparing a brain damaged by drugs to a fried egg, hoping that people will avoid using illegal drugs to keep their brains from frying (Witte, 1992).
Analyzing the campaign using the PMT, it shows that it contains various elements that made it successful during its time. First of all, the campaign contained all the components of a fear appeal. Its appraised severity was shown by comparing a damaged brain to a fried egg, expectancy of exposure was demonstrated through the use of illegal drugs, and finally, the efficacy of recommended response is attainable and practical, that is, don’t use drugs. The fear appeal in this particular campaign was approached by presenting the negative consequences of using illegal drugs. The visual used was simple and vivid and therefore can be well remembered by those who saw it. The campaign was able to get the recommended response from the public, and in this case, the fear appeal tactic, using PMT, was effective.
Using the Parallel Response Model in analyzing the campaign, it shows that the campaign focused on the danger of using drugs to motivate actions and it was successful in doing that. It was able to affect the cognitive function rather than emotions of the audience and therefore managed to induce behavior change. The simplicity of the campaign made it successful and memorable. It was able to influence behavior change using the PMT and Parallel Response Model. The campaign was very successful in the 1980s that several studies show that it had measurable impact in the US. Statistics taken in 1991, three years after the campaign was launched, showed that use of marijuana and other drugs were less than the previous years and the number of people who became aware about the risks that marijuana and cocaine pose, increased.
The success of the campaign was due to the various elements that the advertisements or PSAs contained. The message was simple and visuals were graphic but ethical. The comparison of the brain to the egg was a brilliant idea because even though you don’t see the brain, you can picture what is happening so therefore it was not very off putting to watch. The ad stirred interest more than anything because the message was more subliminal.
Not all fear appeal campaigns have been successful. Some campaigns contained very vivid images that caused high tensions, fear and distress to other audiences. There are issues that are very sensitive and therefore tackling these issues can never be straightforward. Fear appeal campaigns in these cases, should be carefully considered so as not to turn off potential audience. For instance, the use of graphic images in advertisements which children and vulnerable individuals may not understand, such was the case of Barnardo’s campaign, which has the tagline, ‘No Silver Spoons for Children Born into Poverty’, and shows images of newborn babies, one with a cockroach crawling out of his mouth, and one with a syringe in her mouth. The shock tactic used in this campaign backfired as audience complained the ads were too offensive, shocking and distressing, especially for children.
The use of fear appeals in advertising, as well as in public service announcements have increased over the years and no doubt that it will still be utilized by communicators to persuade or dissuade us from buying or doing certain things. However, it can be said that although studies show that fear can motivate change, fear appeals are not suitable for all kinds of campaign. Studies show that individuals respond effectively to appropriate level of fear threshold and below and beyond that threshold, i.e. when tension becomes too high because of exposure to extreme images, individuals tend to react unfavorably therefore fear appeals become less effective.
There is also the issue of ethicality and the suitability of fear appeals campaign. Although fear appeals have target audience, they also indirectly affect their non-target audience and therefore, efforts should be done to make sure the sensitivity of fear appeals. In this case, the use of extremely graphic, emotionally intense and high impact ads should be thoroughly assessed to make fear appeals more ethical.
As individuals we handle our fears differently in different situations, and this fact alone makes it more difficult for fear appeals to initiate behavior change. This shows that further research and experiments are needed to establish whether or not fear appeals genuinely create impact and change individuals’ attitude or behavior over time. Perhaps it is worth considering whether or not the use of fear appeal in campaigns is ethical (Williams, n.d.). Critics of fear appeal campaigns will argue that there are certainly other ways to evoke behavior change and fear appeals are not guaranteed to work for all campaigns.
Some may argue that overall, fear appeals enhance persuasive communication, and it can be effective in some cases. It has enormous capability for rousing behavioral change, only if used correctly – that is, in the right circumstance, with the right audience. However, the work of the social scientist is not done yet. More studies are needed to determine the right formula which will produce consistent results over time.
Ajzen, I., 1992. Persuasive Communication Theory in Social Psychology: A Historical Perspective. [online] Available at:
Anon., 2010. Protection Motivation Theory. [online] Available at
Mayfield, Z.,2006. Fear Appeal Messages and Their Effectiveness in Advertising. [online] Available at:
Okazai, S. and Chung, H., n.d. Fear appeal and protection motivation theory in anti-cigarette campaign. Korean Academy of Marketing: Korea.
Pechmann, C., Zhao G., Goldberg, M.E., and Reibling, E.T., 2003. What to Convey in Antismoking Advertisements for Adolescents: The use of Protection Motivation Theory to Identify Effective Message Themes. Journal of Markering 67 [online] Available at
Williams, K., n.d. Fear appeal theory. [online] Available at
Witte, K., 1992. Putting the fear back into fear appeals: The Extended Parallel Process. [online] Available at