Sunday, March 29, 2009

Fear Appeal in Advertising

LaTour et al (1996, p 2) say a fear appeal is a “psychoactive” ad that highlights an aspect of our “suboptimal lifestyles.” Their study shows a positive correlation between fear appeal and audience attitude towards an ad, and also that there are no ethical issues (p 6). They use (p 8) “deodorant failure” advertisements as an example of how fear appelas can be helpful communication.

Hawkins, et al (p 416) say that fear appeals use the threat of unpleasant consequences if a behavior is not altered. They single out bad breath. I am going to Platonify and say plaque falls into the same category of unpleasantness. Fear reduction is an effective agent to change attitudes, according to Hawkins, et al (2007, p 386, 408).

Several theories are in play, including the Theory of Reasoned Action (see Hawkins, et al, 2007, p 404). According to TRA, normative social beliefs are a major determinant in an individual about the appropriateness of a behavior. Social beliefs about bad breath, germs and plaque are leveraged in the Listerine ads. According to Gire (2003, p 1), the man who created Listerine, Gerald Lambert also developed the word "halitosis" to provide an advertising basis for discouraging bad breath.

With Listerine a consistent fear attribute is germs. Below is a Listerine ad from 1969. (click on image to enlarge)

And the following from 2009.

In both decades it is in the body copy. The headline further informs us of the manifest consequence of following a suboptimal lifestyle: back then we would have bad breath, today plaque. In both decades, the ads are what LaTour, et al (p 3) would characterize as “mild.”

Another theory is the Elaboration Likelihood Model (see Hawkins, p 409-10). It lines-up two consumer approaches to processing advertisements. One, central route processing is very cognitive and involves extensive information exchange between consumer and marketer. The other, peripheral processing uses more emotional cues and little or no cognitive processing.

In their paper "The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion", Cacioppo and Petty (1986, pp 1-2) clarify that they do not propose two mutually exclusive and exhaustive types but that central and peripheral represent positions on a continuous dimension ranging from high to low elaboration. I believe that along the elaboration continuum, the Listerine ads are on the peripheral side of the mean.

In the 1969 ad and also in the interesting TV commercial below, I think Listerine was trying a change belief tactic (see Hawkins, 2007, p 406) regarding the taste. They change the belief about the pungent taste of the product from bad to good, reasoning it would not be an effective germ fighter otherwise.

Here is an interesting look back to Morgan Freeman’s start in showbiz – he did TV commercials before movies. He is in a Listerine ad, explaining why the bad taste is good: Early Freeman Today, dealing with the taste is apparently not a need, or they don’t want to raise a red flag themselves about it.

Is it all ethical? Hawkins, et al (p 416) cite ethical concerns about "fear appeals based on social anxieties about bad breath...." LaTour, et al (1996, p 7) found no one in their studies considered fear appeals unethical. They even go so far to say such advertising can be helpful communications (p 8), and give as an example - deodorant failure, similar to bad breath. The Listerine ads, to me, fall on the LaTour side of the line and I do not think them unethical.

Cacioppo, John and Richard Petty (1986.) The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. Retrieved on March 28, 2009 from the EBSCOHost database.

Gire, JT (2/10/2003). Attitudes & Attitude Change: Influencing Thoughts and Feelings. Retrieved on March 28, 2009 from

Hawkins, Del, David Mothersbaugh and Roger Best (2007). Consumer Behavior. McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

LaTour, M, R Snipes and S Bliss (03/01/1996). Don’t be afraid to use fear appeals: an experimental study. Journal of Advertising Research.

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