Fear appeals in social marketing: Strategic and ethical reasons for concern
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 deleterious effects in real-world social marketing campaigns. Ethical concerns about fear appeals include maladaptive responses such as chronic heightened anxiety among those most at risk and, paradoxically, 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.