Fear appeal in health campaigns – smoking


Author: Tim Smits

Yesterday, I was on Belgian national television for the popular science show “Ook Getest op Mensen”. Each episode, they try to tackle a few behavioral questions using quasi-scientific methodology. This week’s episode, among others, focused on public health campaigns and sigarette packaging using visual and extreme fear appeals. As others have already claimed, those extreme fear appeals do not always result in adaptive consequences (see Witte & Allen, 2000). If not accompanied by easy to achieve goals or action plans or if they do not bolster self-efficacy, such fear appeals may result in maladaptive behaviors. The rationale is that fear appeals increase negative emotions and to reduce these negative emotions, we will do something maladaptive like avoiding the message or minimizing it. The real-life study we did produced some nice anecdotical insights.

An excerpt of the show can be watched here:

“Ook Getest op Mensen” also tries to include a real-life demonstration to the audience and consulted the team in designing this experiment. They made two different posters, one control poster expressing a positive thing and one anti-smoking poster using extreme fear appeals in the imagery. Both were set up and a couple of hundred yards further, pedestrians were interviewed about how well they remembered these posters and what they think of the picture as a campaign image.

For the control picture, we saw an average recognition of about 60%. It did not matter whether interviewees were smokers, ex-smokers or non-smokers. Interestingly, for the anti-smoking image, there was a difference. Again, about 60% of ex-smokers and non-smokers had a good memory for the image. Smokers, however, suddenly dropped to a 40% recognition score.

As a side observation, which was not included in the show, we found that ex-smokers significantly differed from both smokers and non-smokers in the appreciation of the image as a campaign picture. They were more likely to appreciate it, as if they feel good being remembered about their efforts to overcome a previous smoking habit.

This blog post was also published on Tim’s personal blog ‘Persuasive Mark‘.


2 responses to “Fear appeal in health campaigns – smoking

  1. I saw the experiment with the two posters. A question that arose, is whether or not we can truly call the ‘control’ poster a control condition. In my opinion this poster was not a neutral counterpart of the experimental poster. Is it not possible that an opposite effect of the attractiveness and theme (love) of the ‘control’ poster resulted, or at least, aided the reported effect?

    And yes, I do realise this is merely ‘quasi-science’, a television show, but since you elaborate on the results, I did not swallow my comment ;-).

  2. Hi Maarten. Thanks for some active thought on this blogpost.
    You are right that it is not a neutral control condition. Still, there is some value to it and I think the results are still valid from the quasi-science point of view.
    Why? It is not that clear in the clip but the study was a repeated measures design. All interviewees had walked by both posters. Among these interviewees, about 60% saw the white (‘control’) one. Among the same interviewees, those that did not smoke, saw the anti-smoking poster in 60% of the cases. However, the same smokers that correctly remembered the details of the control poster in 60% of the cases, remembered the same type of detail for the anti-smoking poster in only 40% of the cases.

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