Fear and Facts in Advertising

Most of us remember the DARE campaign (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), an anti-drug program in schools that encouraged students to “just say no” to marijuana, alcohol, other drugs, and peer pressure. More memorable, however, was its failure to significantly reduce drug use, as evidenced by the young adults who ironically wear its logo plastered across their t-shirts in jest. So where did the campaign go wrong, and how can your behavior change campaign avoid the same pitfalls? How does one accurately state the risks of an action without alienating your audience?

Scare tactics in advertising are nothing new. Take, for example, the well-known “This is your brain on drugs” campaign that compares your noggin to a broken, sizzling egg in order to scare kids away from drug use. Scientists refer to scare tactics as “fear appeals” and the successfulness depends upon other factors. In the case of the DARE program, the dangers were exaggerated and because of this, they lost credibility with their target audience.

Another problem with fearmongering is that it can come off condescending and finger-wagging. Without all considerations, it’s easy to make something that’s supposed to be scary turn out cheesy. The last thing you want to do is have people rolling their eyes at your campaign and not take it seriously because it exaggerates. On the other hand, you don’t want to sugarcoat the truth. For example, when working on the Know Meth campaign, we need to make sure we are informing people about the deadly consequences without coming across preachy. While the devastating effects of methamphetamine are certainly terrifying, most people have been repeatedly hit over the head with this realization by ad campaigns. The important thing is to take an education stance and provide people with facts, information, and resources that can help.

This is an example of efficacy, which scientist have found is the most effective way to use fear. Audiences need to believe they have the power to change their circumstances. In other words, they need to have an “out”- you can’t just leave them thinking the situation is hopeless. People will want to reduce the emotional distress your campaign caused them, which they can do either by suppressing their fear through reactance, denial, or defensive avoidance, or by taking action. A thoroughly thought-out campaign will teach them how to do the latter.

In the end, different appeals work for different people. Instead of trying the “scared straight” approach, provide your audience with realistic information and resources to help them make better choices, and watch the positive results start to roll in.

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Affirm Agency

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