Why accentuate the negative?
Fear appeals work.
That’s according to 100 studies and 50 years of research on fear appeals reviewed by researchers Kim Witte and Mike Allen.
Fear appeals — also known as scare tactics, shock tactics, negative messages, risk communications, threats and avoidance benefits — have a high “response efficacy,” researchers say.
In other words, a threat may be more likely to motivate behavior than a promise.
We’ve used fear appeals for decades.
Preachers, teachers, communicators and others have used fear appeals since antiquity to convince people to:
- Apply sunscreen
- Avoid drugs and alcohol
- Conduct breast self-exams
- Drive safely
- Duck and cover
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Learn self-defense techniques
- Not drink and drive
- Stop smoking
- Use condoms
- Wear seatbelts
You can use fear appeals in your persuasive messages, too, to get your readers to do everything from getting heart scans to buying long-term-care insurance to contributing to their 401(k) plans.
Consequences more powerful than benefits.
Appeals can be positive: make money, save money, save time. But sometimes negative appeals work best.
“People spend 19 times the time, effort and expense to solve a pain than to reap a benefit.”
— Chris Stiehl, “The Listening Coach”
In one extended parallel study, for instance, researchers tested two messages:
- Negative: By failing to perform breast self-examinations, you’ll be less likely to discover cancer in its early stages, so treatment will be less likely to work.
- Positive: By performing breast self-examinations, you’ll be more likely to detect breast cancer in its early stages, when it’s more treatable.
The negative version was nearly 20% more effective than the positive one at getting women to conduct breast self-exams.
So forget what your mother told you: If you can’t think of anything nice to say, say something negative. Your campaign may be more powerful.
Symptoms more powerful than cures.
Writing about symptoms may be the holy grail for health communication, according to a study by MedTrack Alert and the Interactive Media Services Program at Miami University in Ohio.
Describing the symptoms of a disease, according to the study, provides a “double hit” of:
- Convincing customers to comply with action recommendations such as using a product or service
- Getting people to pass the messages along through word of mouth
In fact, focusing on symptoms is more effective than focusing on:
- Gaining better control over a condition
- Experiencing a positive outcome
- Getting good results
- Saving money with a discount coupon
- Showing that the cure is easy to use
- Explaining how a drug works
“The findings here suggest that an advertisement that calls attention to the symptoms … has the most potential to be acted upon,” the researchers say.
Accentuate the negative.
Fear appeals work for getting people to do everything from duck and cover to avoid texting while driving.
How can you accentuate the negative in your next campaign?
Sources: Kim Witte and Mike Allen, “A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeals: Implications for Effective Public Health Campaigns,” Health Education & Behavior, vol. 27, no. 5, October 2000
Aaron Baar, “Drugmakers Should Focus On Symptoms, Study Finds,” Marketing Daily, Nov. 8, 2007
Robert A. Ruiter, Bas Verplanken and Gerdien van Eersel, “Strengthening the Persuasive Impact of Fear Appeals: The Role of Action Framing,” The Journal of Social Psychology, June 2003
Matthew Hutson, “Strange Origins of Urban Legends,” The Atlantic, Dec. 8, 2015
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