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Fear-based information campaigns

Fear based informaion

Fear appeals confront people in a rather hard and often shocking way with the negative consequences of risky behaviour and also show how to change undesirable behaviour.Fear-based information, also called fear appeals, confronts people with the negative consequences of risky behaviour by capitalizing on their fears.

The confrontational character of this type of information evokes interest and keeps the attention. Fear motivates people to adjust their behaviour. However, this adjustment is not always a safer alternative.In general, fear is considered a strong motivator of human behaviour.

International studies show that fear appeals can have positive effects on attitude and intended behaviour provided that, besides creating fear, there is also a clear (campaign) message about the personal vulnerability to a risk and about feasible and convincing behaviour alternatives. However, a number of studies show an unintended negative effect in which participants deny, trivialize, or ridicule the message.

In general, television spots about road safety are much more frightening in other countries than those in the Netherlands. The Dutch television spots use humour as a central element. Some researchers are of the opinion that information based on positive emotions can be just as effective. Recent studies have shown that in males and in young people frightening road safety information has less positive effects than information which uses positive emotions like humour and sets positive behavioural examples.

‘Fear appeals’ are persuasive information messages that are meant to frighten people by describing the negative or painful consequences that will occur if they don’t obey the message (Witte, 1992; Knobbout & Van Wel, 1996). A fear appeal frequently uses personal words combined with tough or painful pictures. In addition, the message usually contains clear and applicable recommendations to avoid the negative consequences. In international literature ‘fear appeals’ are also called ‘threat appeals’, ‘shock tactics’, or ’emotive campaigns’.

A fear appeal is a type of persuasive message in which evoking fear or concern is meant to motivate people to pay attention to the message and to then adopt the recommendations in the message. Besides persuasive communication, Van Woerkum & Kuiper (1995) distinguish two more types of communication: informative and educational communication. The messenger, often the government, uses informative communication to provide fast and useful answers to as many questions as possible. Educational communication is mainly intended to enable the population to make a particular decision in a sensible way.

The boundaries between fear appeals and other types of information are not always sharp. Two of the Dutch Traffic Safety Association’s television spots in the 1980s, ‘The Kite’ and ‘The Photo Album’ refer indirectly to the death of a child in traffic; this was done by showing a kite let go of and a black page in a photo album. Even though these two spots cannot really be labelled fear appeals, they do have similarities because they can evoke fear and anxiety.

Fear appeals are a popular method for drawing attention to themes such as road safety, smoking, and safe sex for a number of reasons. Seeing ‘exciting’ events makes people curious. A fear-based message captures and holds peoples’ attention and thus meets one of the requirements of successful information dissemination. People who see a fear-based spot for the first time are, as it were, emotionally drawn into the story about risky driving behaviour and the disastrous consequences it can have for the victim and his/her family.

A fear-based message is sometimes the only way of drawing the attention and of creating the involvement of target groups that have very little interest in a subject. For instance, in the United States and Australia there are alternative sanction programmes for young drivers who have been caught drink-driving, in which they have to visit a mortuary to see the corpses of those killed in (alcohol-related) crashes.