52 Scared Straight: The Effectiveness of Fear Appeals

Molly Olson

For Maria and Eric, my parents.

My mother and I have always led with our emotions. Whether we are fighting, or retelling stories, or even just chatting at the dinner table, I have always found that we first and foremost talk about how we feel, rather than what we think. We are very different in a lot of ways, but we have always had this very central characteristic in common. Some may argue that emotions can cloud judgement, but I have found that they have made our mother-daughter relationship stronger. Strong emotions can let people know that you care, and I’m grateful that my mother cares so much.

As for my father, he’s more logical. Our conversations have rarely ended in tears or an exchange of emotionally impactful words, but I am glad to have a voice of reason when I need it. My father has worked in the marketing industry for years and has continued to impress me with his knowledge and intelligence. I hope this chapter sheds light on why appealing to our emotions can be impactful, visceral, and motivating but also logical, reasonable, and insightful. This chapter hopefully provides strong examples of how pathos can work effectively with logos, just as my parents have shown me.

Keywords: Fear, Appeals, Persuasion, Effectiveness

Emotions can often get the best of us. They can influence not only how we feel, but also how we think. Oftentimes, rhetors will use emotions to make their audiences feel a certain way about an issue. Aristotle was the first one to coin the term for the method: pathos. Aristotle defines pathos in his classical work, On Rhetoric as, “understand[ing] the emotions-that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited” (The Internet Classics Archive | Rhetoric by Aristotle).


Pathos is not just confined to speeches or argumentative debates; it can exist in other realms as well. For example, pathos has become a key player in advertising, specifically through the use of emotional appeals. Companies and campaigns will use elements in their advertisements that appeal to certain emotions, such as joy, anger, sadness, and fear, to promote a message or sell a product. Specifically, appeals that draw on the negative emotion of fear have become increasing popular over the years, especially in campaigns that attempt to persuade the audience to change a specific behavior. I believe that fear appeals are significantly effective in campaigns that promote intention to alter the consumer’s behavior because they focus their message on the negative outcomes associated with that behavior. This leads the consumer to realize that there is a high risk that comes with participating in the targeted behavior. If they change their behavior, the risk of undesirable outcomes reduces significantly, thus promoting the consumer to change their ways.

As a Writing minor and as a student in Rhetorical Theory and Criticism, I have a strong understanding of rhetorical theory, which is needed in the discussion surrounding pathos and fear. Additionally, I have taken several marketing and consumer behavior courses, which equips me for this analysis because we have discussed at length how emotional appeals influence advertisements and campaigns.


Because fear appeals focus their message on threat and risk, consumers feel a sense of action when viewing these behavioral change campaigns. Over the years, marketing analysts have examined how fear appeals can encourage behavioral changes in preventative campaigns. Researchers define fear as, “… a negatively valanced, high-arousal emotional state experienced in response to an imminent threat…” (Skurka et al.). Additionally, researchers state that, “The action tendency associated with fear is a flight response to avert the threat” (Skurka et al.).


Marketing analysts have examined how fear appeals can be used to encourage behavioral changes. Fear appeals are especially effective in promoting intention to change unhealthy behaviors because they focus their message on the negative consequences of those behaviors. For example, in one study researchers explored if emotional appeals in public service announcements would influence adolescents’ intention to reduce their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Sugar-sweetened beverages have known health risks such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The experiment used PSAs with four different types of emotional appeals to see which appeal would be the most effective in encouraging the intention to reduce SSB consumption. The four different types of emotional appeals were humor, fear, nurturance, and a control condition. There were two PSAs used with fear appeals. One PSA showed various SSBs (soda, coffee, sweetened tea) being consumed at multiple points in the day. Then, the PSA stated that these drinks can add up to 93 packets of sugar a day. The PSA ends by reminding the viewer the health risks that can come about with increased sugar intake (obesity, diabetes, cancer) and then suggests healthy alternatives. The second PSA shown to the subjects focused on one child who drank one bottle of soda per day. The PSA then stated that this intake was equivalent to 50 pounds of sugar per year. The PSA reminds the viewer that this kind of excess sugar intake can lead to obesity, which can then result in heart disease and amputation (Bleakley et al.). Cutting out sugary beverages has been proven to be difficult, which is why these fear appeals focus on informing the consumer that the risks do not necessarily outweigh the rewards.


Fear based appeals are not only effective, but they are also logical. Fear appeals establish that a specific behavior results in bad outcomes, so stopping the behavior is the best way to prevent these associated outcomes. Although fear appeals rely on emotions to elicit an immediate response from consumers, their message would not be as effective without the logical component. This is evident in the study as the fear-based PSAs had the strongest influence on perceived argument strength, which was directly related to intention to reduce consumption. These results indicate that subjects found the PSAs with fear appeals to have a quality argument. In this study, strong, quality arguments were correlated with the behavioral change of cutting back on SSBs (Bleakley et al.). In this case, subjects felt that the fear appeals produced a strong, quality argument by focusing their message on the risks associated with the targeted behavior: excess SSB consumption. It is because of this message that the fear appeals had the strongest influence on intention to alter behavior in a preventative campaign. Although the positive emotional appeals (humor, nurturance) were still associated with quality arguments, fear appeals were the most effective.


Another common behavior that is targeted in these preventative campaigns is smoking. Smoking is addicting and can be a very difficult habit to break. In order for an addicted consumer to end their smoking habits, they must understand how much they are risking, and fear appeals are the most effective way to deliver that message. Smoking has dangerous health risks such as cancer, heart disease, strokes, and diabetes (Health Effects | Smoking & Tobacco Use | CDC). In one study, researchers wanted to explore the effectiveness of different appeals in a recent Florida “truth” campaign that encouraged smokers to quit their unhealthy habit. The researchers showed participants one of six videos; three videos contained fear appeals while the other three had humor appeals. The videos with fear appeals focused on the message that smoking kills, as each video showed viewers how many people die each year because of smoking. One of the videos even had images of body bags to get the message across. The results concluded that fear was positively related to persuasiveness, convincing nature of the video, and support for advocated action (Kean and Albada). Once again, the fear appeal videos had a higher rate of perceived argument strength because their message was: smoking can lead to death and dangerous health risks; stop smoking and reduce your chances of those negative outcomes. Also, the fear appeals provided visceral imagery of what can happen to smokers. It is one thing for consumers to hear that they are risking their lives by continuing to smoke, it is another thing to watch a video of smokers inside body bags. The fear appeal is not only logical, but it forces the consumer to visualize themselves in the negative scenario, which makes them feel uncomfortable and scared. Eliciting fear makes the threat of their actions feel imminent, thus encouraging them to act now before it is too late.


In another study, researchers examined fear appeals and their influence on promoting climate change-related intentions and risk perceptions. In this study, the researchers randomly assigned young adults to watch a video about climate change. There were three videos that participants could be assigned to: fear, humor, or informational, which served as the control. In the fear video, a weatherman reported the severe forecasts in the U.S. that were caused by climate change: increased rain and flooding, increased heat, drought, forest fires, and extensive coastal flooding. Additionally, the video had intense language and showed photographs and video clips that portrayed the devastating effects of climate change. Researchers found that both fear and humor appeals produced climate-change activism intentions, but only the fear appeals produced a sense of perceived climate risks (Skurka et al.). These results tell us that fear appeals have a more persuasive edge in promoting intentions to alter behavior relating to climate change activism because the message is centered around the imminent threat of the earth being destroyed. Additionally, consumers saw images that were a vivid reminder of the risks of climate change. These images made the threat feel immediate, which is why the fear appeals established that sense of perceived risk.


Despite its effectiveness in promoting behavioral changes, fear can evoke other emotions that have the opposite effect. For example, in the anti-smoking study referenced earlier, the fear appeal videos were also associated with anger. Although fear had a positive relationship with persuasiveness of message, anger had a negative relationship. These results indicate that when anger increased, persuasiveness, convincing nature of the video, and support for advocated action decreased. Because anger was correlated with less persuasiveness and less acceptance of the non-smoking message, it can be argued that appeals that evoke anger may be less effective. Fear and anger can often co-occur when watching these emotionally packed PSA videos, so some may argue that fear appeals are not as effective because they can evoke anger. However, even though fear and anger were associated with each other in this study, the researchers still stated that, “fear appeals tended to be more effective than humor” (Kean and Albada). Although these messages can evoke both fear and anger in a participant, there is still evidence that fear appeals are more effective in encouraging behavioral changes if the message is focused on the risks and dangers associated with the targeted behavior.


As humans, we all experience fear, some more intensely than others. Many of us are afraid of our own demise and try everything in our power to stop it from coming. However, some behaviors and bad habits can accelerate this demise, and we may not even be aware of it. We are constantly learning about the new ways our behaviors can help and hurt us. But bad habits are hard break, especially when you are targeting a behavior that has become second-hand nature after years of repetition. Sometimes the only way to get through to someone is to invoke one of our most primitive senses: fear.


Works Cited


Aristotle. The Internet Classics Archive | Rhetoric by Aristotle. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.1.i.html. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.

Bleakley, Amy, et al. “Do Emotional Appeals in Public Service Advertisements Influence Adolescents’ Intention to Reduce Consumption of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages?” Journal of Health Communication, vol. 20, no. 8, Aug. 2015, pp. 938–48. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10810730.2015.1018593.


Health Effects | Smoking & Tobacco Use | CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/health_effects/index.htm. Accessed 23 Mar. 2021.

Kean, Linda, and Kelly Albada. “The Effectiveness of Anti-Smoking Public Service Announcements: Do Emotional Appeals Work?” Conference Papers — International Communication Association, Annual Meeting 2004, p. 1.

Skurka, Christofer, et al. “Pathways of Influence in Emotional Appeals: Benefits and Tradeoffs of Using Fear or Humor to Promote Climate Change-Related Intentions and Risk Perceptions.” Journal of Communication, vol. 68, no. 1, Feb. 2018, pp. 169–93. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/joc/jqx008.


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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Molly Olson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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