Fear Appeals in Social
Marketing: Strategic and
Ethical Reasons for Concern
Gerard Hastings and Martine Stead
University of Stirling & Open University
University of Strathclyde
This article criticizes the predominant use of fear appeals in social
marketing. Laboratory studies, which have been the basis for most of
the research on fear appeals and which generally suggest that high
fear works, have limitations that include forced exposure, short-term
measurement, and an overdependence on student samples. Although,
unfortunately, field research evaluations of fear appeals are few, they
usually reveal that fear has both weaker effects and unintended dele-
terious effects in real-world social marketing campaigns. Ethical con-
cerns about fear appeals include maladaptive responses such as
chronic heightened anxiety among those most at risk and, paradoxi-
cally, complacency among those not directly targeted, and increased
social inequity between those who respond to fear campaigns, who
tend to be better off, and those who do not, who tend to be the less
educated and poorer members of society. Alternatives to fear appeals
are the use of positive reinforcement appeals aimed at the good
behavior, the use of humor, and, for younger audiences, the use of
postmodern irony. © 2004 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Fear appeals are once again popular in health campaigns and in adver-
tising by charity organizations. Recent campaigns aimed at smoking pre-
vention in the United States (Biener, McCallum-Keller, & Nyman, 2000;
Psychology & Marketing, Vol. 21(11): 961–986 (November 2004)
Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com)
© 2004 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. DOI: 10.1002/mar.20043
DeJong & Hoffman, 2000; Goldman & Glantz, 1998), the United Kingdom
(Baker, 1995; Grey, Owen, & Bolling, 2000), and Australia (Chapman,
1999) have used fear-arousing images, as have campaigns for road safety
in New Zealand (Land Transport Safety Authority, 2001) and in Victoria,
Australia (Transport Accident Commission, 2002), and numerous char-
itable causes in Britain (Batty, 2001; BBC News Online, 1998). Fear
appeals are embraced with enthusiasm by social marketers. For instance,
the recent antismoking campaign in Australia, which has also been
employed in Poland, Thailand, and Norway, was described by its pro-
ducers as the “mother of all scare campaigns” (Hill, Chapman, & Dono-
However, the research literature on fear appeals, which consists mainly
of short-term studies with students in laboratory settings, leaves a num-
ber of important questions unanswered. Are fear appeals effective in the
long run? How effective are fear messages in the real world? How do
fear appeals reflect on the sponsoring “brand”? What ethical issues should
be considered, such as the unintended effect of fear appeals? This arti-
cle attempts to answer these questions.
LABORATORY RESEARCH ON FEAR APPEALS
A large body of research over several decades has grappled with how and
whether fear can persuade consumers to change their health behaviors. Dif-
ferent models have been proposed to describe the cognitive and emotional
processes involved. These include the curvilinear model (Janis, 1967; Quinn,
Meenaghan, & Brannick, 1992), which posits that fear can persuade up to
a certain threshold of tolerance, beyond which it becomes counterproduc-
tive; the parallel-response model (Leventhal, 1970), which proposes that
emotional and cognitive factors act independently to mediate behavior,
with emotional factors affecting internal attempts to cope with the threat
(e.g., by rationalizing or rejecting it) whereas cognitive factors determine
whether the recommended behavior change will be enacted; and the
expectancy-valence model (Rogers, 1983), which asserts that the effec-
tiveness of fear-arousing communications is a function of four variables—
the perceived severity of the threat, the perceived probability of its occur-
rence, the perceived efficacy of the advocated protective response, and the
perceived self-efficacy to perform the response. This is a cognitive model
in which, interestingly, the emotion of fear plays no direct role but functions
only indirectly in magnifying the perceived severity of the threat. Rogers
(1983) went on to argue that his four variables interact and produce, in the
individual, a level of “protection motivation” that determines the degree of
change in the recommended behavior.
Many studies have investigated the relationship between the amount
of fear evoked and the resulting attitude change or behavior change.
Some have found a linear association—the more fear, the more effect
HASTINGS, STEAD, AND WEBB
(e.g., Baron, Logan, Lilly, Inman, & Brennan, 1994; Boster & Mongeau,
1984; Higbee, 1969; LaTour & Pitts, 1989; Millar & Miller, 1998; Rotfeld,
1988). Others suggest that, as too much fear can result in dysfunctional
anxiety, moderate levels of fear perform better, producing an inverted-U-
shaped model (e.g., P. A. Keller, 1999; Krisher, Darley, & Darley, 1973;
Quinn et al., 1992). However, the most recent meta-analysis concluded
that the preponderance of evidence supports a linear model of fear
arousal—the more fear, the greater persuasion—and that there is no
evidence to support the inverted-U-shaped model of fear (Witte & Allen,
2000). Several studies indicate that self-efficacy, the perceived ability to
make the behavior change advocated in the message, moderates the
effect of fear on attitude and behavior change (Anderson, 2000; Girandola,
2000; Ruiter, Abraham, & Kok, 2001; S. L. Smith, 1997; Snipes, LaTour,
& Bliss, 1999).
The research literature, then, would seem to support the current prac-
tice of using high levels of fear in social advertising. High fear should be
the most effective, providing that the proposed coping response to the
threat is feasible and within the consumer’s ability (Blumberg, 2000; de
Turck, Goldhaber, Richetto, & Young, 1992; Donovan, 1991; Snipes et al.,
1999; Witte, Berkowitz, Cameron, & McKeon, 1998).
However, there are many questions about laboratory research on fear
appeals. For marketers, the crucial question is not “can fear messages
change behavior in the laboratory” but, rather, “can fear appeals change
behavior in the sophisticated and overcrowded clutter of the real-world
communications environment?” Existing research struggles to provide an
answer for several reasons: First, most studies have been conducted in
artificial environments; second, the definitions of fear used are some-
times unclear and the measures of effects are limited; third, narrow or
inappropriate samples have often been used; and fourth, there are few
publicly available studies that have examined real advertising campaigns
that use fear appeals. These reasons are elaborated below.
Artificially High Attention
Fear research has been concerned more with internal rather than exter-
nal validity (Alwitt, 2002). The literature is dominated by laboratory
studies that put respondents into artificial situations that are unlikely
to capture phenomena that occur in a naturalistic setting (e.g., the “This
is a market research study . . .” instruction used by P. A. Keller & Block,
1996). In ordinary TV viewing conditions, people can choose to zip
through or zap out the ads they do not like (Kitchen, 1986), and they can
selectively attend to ads that support their prevailing attitudes and
behaviors, to minimize dissonance and preserve self-esteem (Pechmann,
2001). Fear research studies in the laboratory, however, typically involve
carefully selected respondents who are instructed to pay attention to a
specific ad or message shown in a laboratory environment (e.g., de Turck,
FEAR APPEALS IN SOCIAL MARKETING 963
Rachlin, & Young, 1994; P. A. Keller & Block, 1996; Menasco & Baron,
1982; Moore & Harris, 1996; Schoenbachler & Whittler, 1996). Selecting
and directing respondents in this way reveals little about how a real-
world audience might respond spontaneously to a particular communi-
cation, or about whether the communication is able to compete well
with others for attention in the duration of an actual commercial break
or in the pages of a print medium (Chaudhuri, 1996). The laboratory
circumstances are also likely to encourage cognitive, rational process-
ing, whereas unconstrained viewing more often produces heuristic or
affective processing (Brown, Homer, & Inman, 1998). Furthermore, ask-
ing consumers to explain their responses to advertising may not yield
accurate answers, because consumers tend to revert to the safety of log-
ical explanations for what are largely emotion-based reactions (Hack-
ley & Kitchen, 1999; Weirtz, 1998).
Unclear Definitions and Limited Measures
The fear literature suffers from a tendency to conflate the concepts of
fear, which is a response, and threat, which is a stimulus (Donovan &
Henley, 1997; LaTour & Rotfeld, 1997). There is widespread failure to
specify how stimulus materials may arouse fear, and a lack of clarity
about what high, moderate, and low levels of threat really are (Moore
& Harris, 1996; Tanner, Hunt, & Eppright, 1991). Many studies, too,
employ weak, or at least limited, measures of effectiveness. For exam-
ple, several are based on perceived effectiveness rather than observed
effects; consumers are simply asked how effective they believe a par-
ticular fear message to be (e.g., Biener & Taylor, 2002; Biener et al.,
2000). Self-reported effectiveness is problematic because it does not cor-
relate well with actual behavior (Austin, Pinkleton, & Fujioka, 1999).
Respondents frequently state in research that strong fear appeals are
highly motivating, and state their intentions to change, even when sub-
sequent research shows that these appeals do not change their behav-
ior (DeJong & Wallack, 1999). Audiences are quite capable of recogniz-
ing, and describing with some sophistication, what they understand an
advertiser to be trying to achieve, without necessarily being personally
moved. Young people are simultaneously able to recognize that a drug-
prevention ad or smoking ad is “trying to scare us into not taking drugs
or not smoking,” and to find it personally irrelevant (Cohn, 1998; Hast-
ings & MacFadyen, 2002). In a number of research projects conducted
to help develop HIV/AIDS campaigns in the 1990s, Scottish teenagers
recognized that the advertising was intended to frighten “people in gen-
eral” or “others,” but they did not identify with it: Shock approaches,
they felt, would work for others but not for “me” (Hastings, Eadie, &
Scott, 1990); similarly, smokers can describe a hard-hitting ad as good
while claiming that it fails to scare them personally (MacAskill, Will,
Hughes, & Eadie, 1993).
HASTINGS, STEAD, AND WEBB
Narrow or Inappropriate Samples
Much of the research on fear appeals has been conducted with students,
typically psychology or marketing students (e.g., G. E. Belch, Belch, &
Jones, 1995; de Turck et al., 1994; Johar & Segal, 1987; P. A. Keller, 1999;
P. A. Keller & Block, 1996; Menasco & Baron, 1982; Tanner et al., 1991;
Witte et al., 1998). Conclusions drawn from studies of this relatively homo-
geneous group of highly educated young adults may not apply to other
groups of the population, such as the less educated, adolescents, older
people who are chronically ill, and members of non-White ethnic groups.
These groups are often the targets of fear messages (Chaudhuri, 1996).
Several studies and communications experts have suggested that fear
appeals are likely to work differently with adults compared with young peo-
ple (e.g., Backer et al., 1992; Belch et al., 1995; Hale & Dillard, 1995; Health
Education Board of Scotland [HEBS], 2002); indeed, some suggest that
fear campaigns will be ineffective or counterproductive with young people
because teenagers and young adults have little sense of their own mor-
tality (Pechmann, 2001) and may indeed regard threatening messages as
a challenge (Backer et al., 1992; Brody, 1998; PBS Newshour, 1999). Fear
appeals may also work differently in different countries. What is experi-
enced as persuasive and acceptable in one culture may resonate less well
with, or be seen as unacceptable in, another culture (Laroche,Toffoli, Zhang,
& Pons, 2001; Williams, Briley, Grier, & Henderson, 1998). This is not just
an East–West divide, because there are differences between Western coun-
tries, too: Whereas there is a tradition of hard-hitting, threat-based pub-
lic-health and road-safety advertising in some Western countries, such as
the United States and Australia, others, such as The Netherlands and
Canada, have for many years favored supportive, empathy-based adver-
tising (see, e.g., Cotroneo & Schoales, 1999; Stivoro, 1998; Tripp & Daven-
port, 1988/89). These differences regarding the use of fear are likely to
reflect, at least in part, national differences in beliefs about what is polit-
ically, culturally, and philosophically appropriate for public-sector adver-
tising, and not necessarily which approach is most effective.
Few Real Intervention Studies
Only a few studies reported in the public domain have evaluated fear-
based advertising in real-world interventions. Examples are evaluations
of some smoking cessation campaigns in the United States, United King-
dom, and Australia, and recent road-safety campaigns in Australia. Find-
ings from these studies suggest that, leaving aside the difficulties of dis-
entangling advertising effects from other effects in nonexperimental or
quasi-experimental studies (Macpherson & Lewis, 1998;Transport Acci-
dent Commission, 2002), fear-arousing campaigns usually are effective
in raising awareness and changing attitudes (Biener et al., 2000; Dono-
van, Jalleh, & Henley, 1999; Grey et al., 2000; Hill et al., 1998) but only
FEAR APPEALS IN SOCIAL MARKETING 965
some campaigns show an improvement in the targeted behavior (Baker,
1995; Transport Accident Commission, 2002).
Also, like the laboratory studies, the real-world studies tell us little
about the sustainability of the effects, or the effects they may have on
wider marketing concerns such as branding and relationship building,
or whether messages not based on fear might work better. These issues
are discussed next.
LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF FEAR CAMPAIGNS
The laboratory studies reviewed above reveal nothing about the long-
term effectiveness of fear campaigns. And even when naturalistic stud-
ies show some influence on behavior, measurement is rarely continued
beyond the short term (Pierce, Macaskill, & Hill, 1998).
Nor does the literature tell us anything about the effects of long-term
exposure to repeated fear messages. First, it is unlikely that response to
a repeated fear ad remains static—it is more likely that attitudes are
formed, re-evaluated, and updated in a dynamic process over the dura-
tion of a campaign (Japerson & Fan, 2002). For example, a drug-pre-
vention ad that seems initially shocking to an individual young person
might, after prolonged exposure and the opportunity to discuss the ad
with his or her peers, become predictable, boring, or even laughable (e.g.,
Cohn, 1998; Hastings & MacFadyen, 2002). These dynamic changes in
response could not be predicted by a single-exposure laboratory study
of a fear ad, or by the one-time evaluation of a fear-based campaign.
Repetition of shock ads is a case in point. Shock ads are undoubtedly
effective in commanding attention initially (Weinreich, 1999), but after
numerous screenings they may simply stop working (e.g., Fry, 1996).
Schoenbachler and Whittler (1996) suggest that any fear appeal that
employs a physical threat will be effective in the short term at trigger-
ing appropriate behavioral intentions, but that, with repetition, its influ-
ence will diminish. It is possible that a law of diminishing returns
(Beauchamp & Bowie, 1988) operates with high-threat advertising
whereby there is a need to intensify the threat on each subsequent occa-
sion to produce the same level of fear.
Second, repetition may lead to habituation, annoyance, and an
increased tendency for individuals to tune out the message. Fear research
studies tend to assume that consumers come to each new fear message
cold, neglecting the fact that many will already have been exposed to
such messages before and will have developed well-learned defensive
avoidance strategies (Tanner et al., 1991). Ongoing research into smok-
ers’ reactions to current U.K. and proposed new European Union warn-
ings on cigarette packs indicates that smokers become inured to pack
warnings over time and are adept at screening them out (Devlin, Eadie,
Hastings, & Anderson, 2002). Similarly, Coulter, Cotte, and Moore (1999)
HASTINGS, STEAD, AND WEBB
suggest that viewers draw on their knowledge of previous advertising,
and that once they become aware of an advertising tactic as a tactic, it
experiences a change of meaning and has less power to persuade them.
Third, repeated use of fear strategies for particular issues may condi-
tion audiences to expect that all advertising on that topic should use
fear. For example, smokers in qualitative pretesting research will fre-
quently state that antismoking ads should use visuals of blackened lungs,
and drivers in ad pretests will demand that antispeeding ads show pedes-
trians being bounced off car bonnets (e.g., Eadie & Stead, 1998; Stead &
Eadie, 2000).When consumers are presented with an ad that does not fit
into these genre expectations—a road safety ad that deliberately avoids
showing a gory accident and instead uses a low-key empathy approach,
for example—their initial response is to reject the ad (Eadie & Stead,
1998). If campaign planners take these qualitative responses at face
value, new approaches to road-safety advertising may never get off the
drawing board, despite their potential effectiveness. In Exhibit 1 is a
case summary of an antispeeding ad campaign that braved departure
from the conventional fear-appeal approach.
Fourth, long-term use of fear messages may damage the source of the
message; the source (the sponsor) could become irretrievably linked with
the negative and the threatening. In the commercial sector this concern
typically becomes focused on the brand.
THE EFFECT OF FEAR CAMPAIGNS ON THE “BRAND”
The brand equity of successful commercial products like Coca-Cola and
McDonald’s has taken many years of careful planning and investment.
As a consequence, commercial marketers are cautious about how they use
and portray their brands, and do not allow them to be placed in inap-
propriately themed ads, of which fear appeals may be an example. It is
reported that neither of these companies will advertise in or near the
evening TV news due to concerns over shocking news reports and the
tendency of news broadcasts to dwell on the negative.
There is much debate about the transferability of branding, in all its
complexity, to a social marketing setting (Belinoff, 1995; K. L. Keller,
1998). However, in terms of message source effects, this thinking is not
contentious: The body that produces the communication—the social
brand—will have both an image and a reputation (probably with several
publics) and these are likely to be affected by the type of message it trans-
mits. However, little actual research has examined how the use of fear
appeals affects the reputations of marketers operating in the health and
safety domains. What evidence there is suggests a need for caution. Stud-
ies of political advertising have found that using negative information
tends to reflect badly on the political party that sponsors the ad (Japer-
son & Fan, 2002; Meirick, 2002; Pinkleton, Um, & Austin, 2002). Also, the
FEAR APPEALS IN SOCIAL MARKETING 967
use of threats that the target group finds exaggerated or that do not reflect
the target group’s personal beliefs and experiences can result in the tar-
get group discrediting the communicator (Tripp & Davenport, 1988/89).
Because, for example, teenagers know that most people do not die from
drugs, and drivers know that most speeders do not have accidents, organ-
izations that sponsor these messages are seen, at best, as out of touch or
phony, and at worst as dishonest (Belch, Belch, & Jones, 1995; Buchanan
& Wallack, 1998). Focusing on particular threats while appearing to neg-
lect others more salient to the target group opens the communicator to a
charge of hypocrisy; for example, young people may respond to hard-hit-
ting drug-prevention campaigns by pointing out that the government per-
mits the advertising of a drug, namely, tobacco, and smokers may retort
that “the government doesn’t really want us to stop smoking because it
HASTINGS, STEAD, AND WEBB
Exhibit 1. The “Foolsspeed” Campaign: A Nonfear Approach to Speeding.
Foolsspeed was a 5-year campaign by the Scottish Road Safety Campaign to reduce
speeding in urban areas. The main element of the campaign was a 3-year (1999–2001)
mass-media advertising campaign underpinned by the theory of planned behavior, or
TPB (Ajzen, 1988). Three television ads were developed, each targeting one component
of the TPB (attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control), and broadcast
over 3 years, one ad per year. The ads deliberately avoided fear; instead, humor and cred-
ible driving scenarios were used to increase driver identification and empathy. Despite
initial reactions in the qualitative development research that the storyboards were too
tame, drivers related reasonably well to the low-key approach (Eadie & Stead, 1998).
For example, many were able to identify with the characters depicted in the ads, and
they also acknowledged that gory accidents are rare in day-to-day driving (Stead &
The advertising campaign was evaluated in a 3-year longitudinal survey of overlap-
ping quota samples of drivers ages 17–54 years (n550 per sample). The survey meas-
ured awareness and recall of elements of the Foolsspeed campaign, examined response
to the specific Foolsspeed ads in terms of comprehension, identification, involvement,
and perceptions of key messages, and measured and compared drivers’ attitudes, subjective
norms, perceived behavioral control, intentions, and reported behavior in relation to
urban speeding (exceeding the 30 m.p.h. speed limit on urban roads in Scotland) at base-
line and at subsequent stages to assess whether any changes occurred. A baseline sur-
vey was conducted in October 1998, and follow-up surveys were conducted in Spring
1999, Spring 2000, and Summer 2001, approximately 4–6 weeks after the media burst
for each ad.
The Foolsspeed campaign achieved high spontaneous and prompted ad awareness
levels throughout its duration, and the individual ads were easily understood and per-
ceived not to be patronizing. Drivers identified with the ads (and speeding drivers iden-
tified with them to a greater extent than nonspeeding drivers) and indicated that the
ads had made them reflect on their own driving and how it was perceived by others.
These results suggest that it is possible to create memorable and engaging road safety
advertising without using fear. Detailed analysis of the TPB measures suggested that
the campaign was associated with significant changes, in an antispeeding direction, in
attitudes toward speeding and in positive and negative affective beliefs (beliefs about the
emotional benefits connected with speeding), as well as self-reported speeding behavior
(Stead & Eadie, 2001).
makes money out of us,” or “look at all the doctors who smoke” (Devlin,
Eadie, Hastings, & Anderson, 2002; Tripp & Davenport, 1988/89). An
unexplored research question is whether campaigns based on nonfear
appeals (for example, campaigns that portray positive images of people who
state that they do not use drugs, or campaigns providing reassurance for
those who quit drugs) trigger similar negative feelings about the source
and provoke similar accusations of hypocrisy.
Some research has suggested a relationship between enjoyment of an
ad and a favorable attitude toward the brand (Belch & Belch, 2001; Biel,
1998; Pelsmacker & Geuens, 1999), and that dislike of an ad (because, say,
it uses unpleasant images or makes one feel uncomfortable) can trans-
late into an unfavorable attitude toward the brand, although this has
been disputed as a general finding (LaTour, Snipes, & Bliss, 1996; Rossiter
& Eagleson, 1994). It is also possible that the use of highly dramatic
advertising may hinder brand recognition (Alwitt, 2002). On the other
hand, using an attention-grabbing threat might assist brand recogni-
tion if it helps an ad fight through clutter (Moore & Harris, 1996). All these
possible effects of the use of fear on brands need further research.
Even less research has looked at the long-term implications of fear
appeals for the development of a brand’s strategic purpose. For com-
mercial marketers, all their advertising and other marketing activities
must resonate with and bolster the “brand essence” (de Chernatony,
2001). Advertising propositions must be consistent with the brand image;
otherwise the brand can be damaged (e.g., advertising that continually
mentions price or promotion offers may damage a brand positioned as a
luxury; see de Chernatony, 2001). Charitable organizations have to be par-
ticularly mindful of their reputations when using fear and other nega-
tive tactics (Moore & Hoenig, 1989). For example, in recent years sev-
eral major U.K. charities such as Barnardo’s, the NSPCC (National Society
for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), the Commission for Racial
Equality, and the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals) have run the risk of harming their brand images with cam-
paigns that employ deliberately shocking messages (Batty, 2001).
Although consumers may be less likely to complain about ads by chari-
ties because they impute basically honest and ethical motives to them
(Coulter et al., 1999), advertising experts caution that charities should
not assume they have carte blanche to push the limits of acceptability
(BBC News Online, 2000).
Some social marketers do pay close strategic attention to their brands.
HEBS, which, in a mass-media advertising campaign in the 1990s tar-
geted at young people used positive and humorous message approaches
to promote informed decision-making regarding smoking, drinking, drug
use, and sexual health, was concerned about how the subbrand of the
campaign, “Think about it,” and the overall brand, HEBS, fit together in
consumers’ minds. In particular, did the HEBS branding, which might be
seen by young people as the establishment, hinder the image of the
FEAR APPEALS IN SOCIAL MARKETING 969
“Think about it” campaign? Research prior to the campaign (HEBS, 2001)
indicated that HEBS had a good brand image among young people and
that the branding was appropriate, and HEBS needed this confidence
to proceed with the campaign. For campaigns that employ fear, there is
a particular need to investigate both how the brand (the source) influ-
ences the fear message, and how the fear message, especially if pro-
longed, plays back on the brand.
CUSTOMER AND STAKEHOLDER RELATIONSHIPS
Marketing success is increasingly being seen as a process of building
long-term relationships with customers (Grönroos, 1994, 1995) and other
stakeholders (Morgan & Hunt, 1994). These ideas emerged initially from
the services and business-to-business sectors where customer relation-
ship management (CRM) had assumed great importance. Subsequently,
advances in information technology have led to the development of eCRM
(O’Driscoll & Murray, 1998) and the transfer of the CRM approach into
the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector. The benefits of CRM
are supposed to be better long-term planning because the company gets
to know its customers; lower price sensitivity because service quality
and trust provide valued compensations; and more opportunities to sell
related products (O’Malley & Tynan, 2000). Although the viability of the
relational metaphor has been questioned (e.g., O’Malley, 1998; Tynan,
1997; Tzokas & Saren, 1997), a recent survey conducted by the Economist
Intelligence Unit (EIU) revealed that customer satisfaction has now
become the principal global indicator of managers’ performance (Richard-
son, 2001). More recently, relational ideas have been applied to social
marketing (Hastings, 2003).
Relationships with Customers
The importance of customer relationships is well established in com-
mercial marketing. Loyal customers are remarkably valuable to a com-
pany (Doyle, 1989, 1997). They buy more of its products, are easier to
satisfy, are less price sensitive, and make positive recommendations to
their friends and family. Furthermore, acquiring new customers through
sales calls, advertising, and promotions is reportedly five or six times
more expensive than retaining existing ones (Knauer, 1992). Similarly,
research indicates that the average company loses 10% of its customers
each year, and if this could be reduced to 5%, profitability would be
increased by 25% or more (Reicheld & Sasser, 1990). In contrast, unhappy
customers are a liability—they tend to stop buying the company’s prod-
ucts without warning, to support the competition, and to complain to
their friends and family (Goodman, 1995). A further benefit of estab-
lishing relationships with loyal customers is that there are opportunities
HASTINGS, STEAD, AND WEBB
to gain ongoing useful feedback on performance that makes for product
and service improvements (Weir & Hibbert, 2000). Consensus has there-
fore emerged in the business world that commercial success is built not
on one-off sales but on long-term relationships between the marketer
and the customer: so-called relationship marketing.The essence of rela-
tionship marketing is the individual-level relationship with the cus-
tomer. This means gathering detailed information about the consumer;
using this to tailor future communications and service interactions to
the individual’s needs (Barton, 1999; Weir & Hibbert, 2000); and offer-
ing these communications at times when consumers need or want them,
rather than at times when consumers are likely to be irritated or apa-
thetic (Bolling, 2001). Key elements in a successful marketer–customer
relationship are trust, loyalty, two-way communication, and honest com-
munication (Morgan & Hunt, 1994; Treasure, 2002).
There appears to be no research that examines the use of fear in mar-
keting communications from the perspective of relationship marketing,
but a number of inferences from CRM can be posited as research ques-
tions. If consumers’ feelings of self-esteem and personal comfort are
threatened by fear messages, are they likely to be receptive to building
a long-term relationship with the communicator? Are they less likely to
want to provide information about themselves? What sort of relation-
ship is engendered as a result of fear appeals: one of mutual respect
between adults, or a more patronizing, parent–child one (Lannon &
Cooper, 1983)? If the latter, how durable is this type of relationship?
Relationships with Stakeholders
Communications with stakeholders typically do not involve the mass
media, and would not usually resort to threats. Rather, the emphasis is
on shared objectives and mutual respect. Nonetheless, fear messages are
an important issue here, as messages directed at customers are fre-
quently picked up by other stakeholder groups. This can be problematic.
Charities’ fear-arousing advertising targeted at potential donors often has
to portray the beneficiary group as endangered and suffering because
the public demands pathos (Ramrayka, 2001); thus, for example, a chil-
dren’s charity “needs cruelty to children to be seen to occur because, with-
out that, it has no raison d’etre”(Rayner, 1999). However, donor-intended
messages seen by beneficiaries can cause anguish. For example, the
British Multiple Sclerosis Society’s 1992 campaign, “MS tears lives apart,”
was premised on the notion that MS has devastating effects, turning
previously healthy and perfect people into damaged, infantile victims—
a powerful fund-raising image, no doubt, but disempowering to sufferers
coping with MS (Hevey, 1992). Similarly, a “Help the aged” poster cam-
paign depicting eight pairs of feet in a morgue, with the tag line, “Thou-
sands of elderly people will stop feeling the cold this winter,” was criti-
cized by a pensioners’ group for being upsetting to the very group the
FEAR APPEALS IN SOCIAL MARKETING 971
campaign was intended to help (BBC News Online, 1998). More recently,
an ad in a controversial campaign for Barnardo’s about childhood dep-
rivation, which depicted a young man who killed himself after being
abused as a child, was strongly criticized by a mental-health charity rep-
resenting parents of children who committed suicide, and was subse-
quently withdrawn (Batty, 2001). Fear appeals may therefore have dele-
terious effects on other stakeholders.
Fear appeals raise issues of ethics. Threat-based ads explicitly use the
force of fear to try to manipulate human behavior. Any deliberate fos-
tering of anxiety by marketing communications has ethical implications.
As Hackley and Kitchen (1999) argue, even if we accept the picture of the
sophisticated postmodern consumer who can skillfully negotiate his or
her way through a bombardment of marketing communications, it is still
possible that advertising may have deleterious individual and societal
effects that merit ethical scrutiny. These concerns should be particularly
salient to the examination of marketing communications that deliberately
and explicitly use threats. Furthermore, social marketers should heed that
target audiences can have doubts about the ethicality of social adver-
tising, even when they acknowledge its good intentions (Arthur & Quester,
Advertising practitioners, themselves, perceive potential moral prob-
lems with fear appeals. The U.K.’s ITC Code of Conduct for television
advertising (see Exhibit 2) states that fear should not be used in general
advertising without reasonable justification; in religious advertising; in
the advertising of medicines and health-related products; and in adver-
tising to children, particularly the fear of ridicule for not owning the lat-
est toys or games.
Psychological perspectives add depth to these concerns. Beauchamp
argues in his discussion of whether advertising diminishes free choice
that “manipulative advertising” (defined as that which, among other
things, exerts “emotional pressure”) poses moral questions for the adver-
tiser if it compromises the “manipulee’s” ability to make a rational and
free choice or exploits a particular vulnerability, for example, the vul-
nerability of young, ill, or addicted consumers (1988, p. 422). It has also
been suggested that fear appeals are unethical because they expose
audiences—unwillingly—to graphically upsetting images (discussed
The problem of collateral damage has also to be considered. Mass-
media messages inevitably reach, and often annoy, unintended audiences
who are not in the market for particular goods or behaviors (Hackley &
Kitchen, 1999; N. C. Smith & Quelch, 1992). Hard-hitting antismoking
ads depicting disease and death are as likely to be seen by the children
HASTINGS, STEAD, AND WEBB
of adult smokers as by smokers themselves, with possible distressing
consequences (to both children and parents). Road-safety TV ads aimed
at 18–24-year-olds will also reach other drivers and may breed compla-
cency in the many of us who are in fact at least occasional speeders by
implying that deaths on the road are the fault of inexperienced and
unskilled drivers. These ads could demonize the featured subgroups (e.g.,
young male drivers). They may cause unwarranted anxiety among pedes-
trians (the so-called “worried well” syndrome) and perhaps scare par-
ents into keeping their children indoors.
Support for these concerns is provided by ethical theory. Deontologi-
cal, or duty, theory, which is concerned with the inherent morality,
humaneness, and intentionality of the act, would reject the use of fear
appeals outright on the grounds that, regardless of the ultimate societal
consequences, it is wrong to engender anxiety and distress (Duke, Pick-
ett, & Grove, 1993; N. C. Smith & Quelch, 1992; Snipes et al., 1999). Tele-
ological, or utilitarian, theory, which is concerned with the consequences
of an act and holds that an action is ethical if it produces a net balance
of good over bad, would support the use of fear if the product, behavior,
or idea being promoted is beneficial to society and if other approaches are
less effective. From a utilitarian perspective, however, fear messages can
also have health-damaging consequences and these consequences appear
to be most likely to occur among consumers who are already the most vul-
nerable and at risk, as discussed next.
FEAR APPEALS IN SOCIAL MARKETING 973
Exhibit 2. ITC Code of Conduct on the Use of Fear in Television Advertising.
Fear appeals should be avoided:
•In advertising in general (article 16: “Appeals to Fear. Advertisements must not
without justifiable reason play on fear”);
•In religious advertising (Appendix 5, article 9: “No advertisement may play on
fear. References to alleged consequences of not being religious or not subscribing
to a particular faith are not acceptable”);
•In advertising of medicines and other health related products (Appendix 3, arti-
cle 19): “Appeals to Fear or Exploitation of Credulity. No advertisement may cause
those who see it unwarranted anxiety lest they are suffering or may suffer (if they
do not respond to the advertiser’s offer) from any disease or condition of ill health
...or that health could be affected by not taking the product”).
•The Code also cautions against invoking social fear in the context of advertising
and children, stating that advertising should not lead children to believe that “if
they do not have or use the product or service advertised they will be inferior in
some way to other children or liable to be held in contempt or ridicule” (article 7:
Various studies have demonstrated that exposure to fear appeals can
evoke maladaptive responses—responses designed not to control or
remove the danger addressed in the ad but to cope with the unpleasant
feelings evoked by the fear message (e.g., Janis & Mann, 1997; Schoen-
bachler & Whittler, 1996; Tanner et al., 1991; Witte et al., 1998). These
maladaptive responses include avoiding or tuning out the message, blunt-
ing (failing to process the salient threat part of the message), suppres-
sion (failing to relate the threat to oneself), and counterargumentation
(summoning arguments against the message’s veracity); see Blumberg
(2000); Sego and Stout (1994); and P. A. Keller (1999). Maladaptive
responses are inherently dangerous because they minimize the threat
without minimizing the consumer’s actual risk or danger (Schoenbach-
ler & Whittler, 1996). They may lead consumers to miss important health
information (Belch et al., 1995) or to process information in a biased
manner and draw erroneous conclusions about the relative risks of dif-
ferent health behaviors (Ruiter et al., 2001). For example, charity adver-
tising to raise awareness of the threat of child abuse and murder, such
as the NSPCC’s “Full stop” campaign, may scare parents into prevent-
ing their children from walking to school—thereby exposing them to the
statistically more probable risk of having an accident in a car (Rayner,
1999). There are also potentially damaging long-term consequences on
children’s development from campaigns that result in their play and
movement opportunities being limited due to parental fear.
Smoking-prevention ads may evoke the existential dread of one’s
own death (Henley, 2002). Similarly, given the high levels of anxiety
that already exist about diseases like cancer (e.g., Ong, Austoker, &
Brouwer, 1996; Stead, Low, & MacFadyen (1996), one must ask whether
it is ethical to generate even greater anxiety, which may not only make
people uncomfortable, but reluctant or unable to seek help or diagnos-
tic tests. The fact that advertising messages typically intrude on peo-
ple’s lives without permission adds to this dilemma. Fear appeals
“expose a person against his or her will to harmful or seriously offen-
sive images” (Hyman & Tansey, 1990, p. 110) and may create unneces-
sary consumer anxiety (Benet, Pitts, & LaTour, 1993; LaTour & Zahra,
1989). Henthorne, LaTour, and Nataraajan (1993) argue that individ-
uals targeted by fear messages “. . . should not be subject to the psy-
chological discomfort of excessive tension, generated for the purpose
of motivating a desired behavioral outcome. Rather, fear appeal stim-
uli should be tested to ensure that a given stimulus results primarily
in energy generation rather than tension” (p. 67). In other words, any
level of fear that is not “psychologically ‘comfortable’” may be unethi-
cal (Henthorne et al., 1993).
One way of coping with an unpleasant fear message is to deny its per-
sonal relevance (e.g., Hastings, Eadie, & Scott, 1990; Hastings, Leather,
& Scott, 1987). Constant exposure to fear messages may encourage in
HASTINGS, STEAD, AND WEBB
some individuals feelings of invulnerability (Schoenbachler & Whittler,
1996): “it might happen to others but not to me.” It was to avoid this
response that the Foolsspeed campaign (Exhibit 1 earlier) depicted ordi-
nary, realistic consequences of speeding, such as feeling foolish and not
feeling fully in control.
Another harmful response to constant exposure to fear-inducing mes-
sages may be to encourage or reinforce health fatalism, a common
response in research with consumers about smoking, illicit drug-taking,
and road safety (e.g., Henley, 2002; Stead et al., 1996). Fatalism rein-
forces low self-efficacy—“there’s nothing I can do about the threat any-
way”—thereby rendering the fear message counterproductive (Rippetoe
& Rogers, 1987).
Furthermore, the anxiety and discomfort experienced when watching
or listening to a fear message may trigger the very behavior that the ad
is designed to prevent (Henley, 2002). For instance, it is not unusual for
smokers to say in qualitative advertising pretests and post-tests that a
hard-hitting smoking ad makes them feel so bad that they have to have
a smoke (Eadie & Smith, 1995; MacAskill et al., 1993; Tripp & Daven-
port, 1988/89). Mayne (1999) suggests that intense anxiety may lead
individuals to engage in risky behaviors such as drug use, alcohol abuse,
and overeating as coping mechanisms to (temporarily) relieve the neg-
ative emotion. There is also the perverse possibility that the arousal
stimulated by fear appeals exacerbates the dangerous behavior. For
instance, a domestic-violence advertising campaign in Scotland using
fear-arousing and shocking imagery was discovered, in qualitative
posttesting after the campaign, to have actually triggered attacks from
violent partners (MacAskill & Eadie, 1995).
More Health-Damaging Consequences among
the Most Vulnerable
Several studies have found that fear-arousing messages work when con-
sumers have high self-efficacy (given that they perceive high response effi-
cacy), and do not work, or work less well, when consumers have low self-
efficacy (e.g., Blumberg, 2000; de Turck, Goldhaber et al., 1992; Donovan,
1991; Snipes et al., 1999; Witte et al., 1998). In other words, fear-arous-
ing campaigns are most persuasive with those segments of the target
population who are (already) the best equipped, psychologically and
socially, to act on and benefit from the persuasive message. On the other
hand, they make psychologically and socially less-resourced individuals
feel worse, by inducing feelings of anger and defensiveness, and encour-
aging maladaptive responses that further increase these people’s risk
and vulnerability. People who chronically engage in health-damaging
behaviors such as smoking and illicit drug use typically have lower self-
efficacy than those who do not (Botvin, Malgady, Griffin, Scheier, &
Epstein, 1998; Conrad, Flay, & Hill, 1992; Elders, Perry, Eriksen, &
Giovino, 1994; Johnson et al., 1990).
FEAR APPEALS IN SOCIAL MARKETING 975
Fear-arousing campaigns may therefore cause both absolute harm—
by causing further distress to the most vulnerable in the population and
rendering them (less) able to act on health advice—and also relative
harm, by being disproportionately effective with population segments
who are already high in the resources needed to make the recommended
changes in behavior, thereby causing the less efficacious to lag even fur-
ther behind (Arblaster, 1996; Hastings, Stead et al., 1998). The inequal-
ity violates, in ethical theory, the principle of equal justice for all. Indeed,
Witte et al. (1998, p. 584) argue that if a public health campaign cannot
adequately work with consumers who are low in efficacy as well as with
consumers who are high in efficacy, “then practitioners should avoid the
use of fear appeals in that campaign.”
ALTERNATIVES TO FEAR APPEALS
Fear appeals draw their power from their ability to engender strong neg-
ative emotions, primary among them, of course, fear. However, appeals
based on positive emotions—love, excitement, sex, hope, and humor—
might be equally effective. An appeal based on hope, by The Salvation
Army in Australia, is exemplified in a newspaper ad (The Australian,
July 4, 2003, p. 15) shown in Figure 1. The campaign was also run on
TV. The sponsor reported in private that this campaign has been very
effective in encouraging donations.
The key question becomes not “should fear appeals be used?” but “will
fear appeals do the job more or less successfully than alternative
approaches?” (Menasco & Baron, 1982; Monahan, 1995). Political adver-
tising research suggests that whereas fear appeals may work with some
segments of the electorate, reward appeals may work better with oth-
ers, such as people who are less authoritarian, and indeed that some
products that are advertised primarily using fear appeals may be hand-
icapping themselves by failing to reach out to all segments of the mar-
ket (Wan, Meirick, Williams, Holmes, & Feibich, 2000). In a similar vein,
some charities are turning away from hard-hitting tactics, believing that
in the long run these turn people off, and instead are opting for humor-
ous approaches (Batty, 2001).
Attention has recently turned in road-safety advertising to the poten-
tial value of “empathy strategies” (Slater, 1999), which have been used
to promising effect in a recent theory-based mass media antispeeding
campaign in Scotland (see Exhibit 1).
Recent antismoking and antidrug media campaigns have employed
humor, irony, and supportive messages, which have produced favorable
results in terms of awareness, liking, attitude change, and attempts to
quit (e.g., Belch et al.,1995; Bureau NDM, 2001; HEBS, 2001; Pechmann
2001; Schoales, Mintz, & Hazel,1999). In the Massachusetts antismok-
ing campaign, for example, noted for its use of graphic, fear-arousing
HASTINGS, STEAD, AND WEBB
images, some of the most effective ads were those emphasizing empa-
thy, not fear (Biener & Taylor, 2002). Other nonfear strategies effectively
used in social marketing campaigns are positive role models (de Turck
et al., 1994), empowerment, and even sexual appeals (Reichert, Heckler,
& Jackson, 2001).
FEAR APPEALS IN SOCIAL MARKETING 977
Figure 1. An appeal based on hope. (Courtesy: The Salvation Army of Australia.)
Another nonfear approach is postmodernism—an advertising style
characterized by relativism, irony, surrealism, self-referentiality, and
hedonism (Hackley & Kitchen, 1999). Postmodern appeals do not try too
hard or appear too obvious (although they may do either or both, ironically),
they treat the consumer as knowing and worldly wise (for example, adver-
tising that draws attention to the conventions of advertising itself or
acknowledges the consumer’s capacity for boredom and irritation), and they
avoid appearing desperate (as Kirmani, 1997, p. 84, expresses it, if an ad
is too insistent or repetitive, it signals “something must be wrong”). It is
possible that, as consumers become more accustomed to this sort of know-
ing, ironic, relativist advertising, the obvious and strident tone of fear ads
will (further) lose their persuasive power. Young adults who have grown
up with, and are perhaps the most appreciative of, postmodern advertis-
ing styles seem to respond to fear ads in what might be termed post-
modern ways. For example, posters stating “Heroin screws you up” (a
hard-hitting U.K. antidrugs campaign) were stolen by teenagers to deco-
rate their bedroom walls (Hastings & MacFadyen, 2002). Similarly, iron-
ically branded Death cigarettes flourished in the 1990s: “Advertising-lit-
erate young people (could) de-code the warning . . . and it [the Death
brand] quickly established a cult youth following” (Hatfield, 1994).
Despite evidence that fear messages are persuasive, marketers in both
the commercial and social sectors should exercise caution over their use.
The case for using fear appeals may be tentatively proven in the labo-
ratory, but, in the real world, marketing questions about the use of fear
remain unanswered (and often unexplored). There is a compelling need
to examine the effects of fear messages on real consumers, in natural
settings. These effects should include more than narrowly defined per-
suasiveness, and cover the full panoply of marketing implications. Strate-
gic concerns, such as long-term effects and the impact on relationships,
are important, along with the need to assess the relative effectiveness of
fear approaches in all these areas compared with other creative
approaches that have no or fewer harmful side effects.
There are also ethical questions about the employment of fear appeals.
Ethical theory and practitioner codes of conduct suggest that there are
potential dangers in using fear appeals. Most significantly, there is evi-
dence that fear messages may encourage maladaptive threat-avoidance
behaviors that may, in themselves, be damaging to health. There is also
evidence that fear messages may be least effective with those who have
low self-efficacy, thereby increasing health inequity across the population.
The authors call on marketers—and especially social marketers—to
reexamine their fondness for fear appeals. There are genuine concerns
about the broader marketing implications of fear appeals, and they may
HASTINGS, STEAD, AND WEBB
breach the Hippocratic injunction of “First, do no harm.” These concerns
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Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to: Gerard Hastings, c/o Pro-
fessor Andrew McAuley, Centre for Social Marketing, University of Stirling
Department of Marketing and Open University Business School, Stirling FK9
4LA, Scotland, UK (email@example.com).
HASTINGS, STEAD, AND WEBB