Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Fall, 1996
Miami University

Advertising Through Fear

By: Lynn Kennedy

Please Note: These materials may be used for research, study, and education, but please credit the authors and source.

    Cancer ads strike fear in their audience. They, along with many other advertisements, attempt to 'scare' their audience into doing something; not smoke cigarettes, don't do drugs, buy life insurance, beat aging with plastic surgery, etc. These appeals may be based on legitimate concerns-smoking increases the risk of cancer; "unsafe" sex does increase your chances of contracting AIDS. However, appeals can also be based on irrational fears (Pratkanis and Aronson, 1991). Plastic surgery ads aim at both people's vanity and egotism and at their fear of getting old. Millions of people find topics such as these to be personally relevant.

     According to Horowitz and Bordens (1995), "when the person finds the message personally relevant and has preexisting ideas and beliefs about the topic" he/she will usually follow central route processing. In central route processing the listener creates a context of the image from his/her ideas and beliefs. Petty (1995) says that the listener then "is actively generating favorable and/or unfavorable thoughts in response" to the message.


     Life insurance companies like Prudential attempt to appeal to a person's sense of, "Don't wait until it's too late." They hope to get people to worry about how their loved ones will provide for themselves once he/she is dead. They paint a very gloomy picture of the possible consequences of not having life insurance, and they love to point out that you should act immediately because you never know when it is going to be too late.

     Pratkanis and Aronson (1991) claim that "a fear appeal is most effective when (1) it scares the hell out of people, (2) it offers a specific recommendation for overcoming the fear aroused threat, (3) the recommended action is perceived as effective for reducing the threat, and (4) the message recipient believes that he or she can perform the recommended action." This explains why many appeals to fear are unsuccessful. For example, a smoker might see an advertisement by the American Cancer Society that does "scare" the hell out of him/her. The recommended action is clear; don't smoke. However, it isn't that simple. The person may not think that it would be possible for him/her to stop smoking. There could be a strong psychological and/or physical dependence. Alternatively, the person may view the recommended action as ineffective. "If I don't get cancer from smoking I'll get it from some other carcinogen floating around me." This may also explain why fear appeals concerning AIDS and drugs are unsuccessful in many cases. People can realize that not practicing "safe" sex or using drugs is dangerous to their health, yet they can't follow the message's recommended action. They continue to use drugs, practice "unsafe" sex, etc.

Learn More About :

Fear in Advertising

Fun and Pleasure in Advertising

Vanity & Egotism in Advertising

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 17:06:32. This document has been accessed 1 times since April 20, 2002. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman