Drawing the line on fear: balance in advertising standards

There’s a fine balance between the needs of social advertisers to create messages that will grab attention and public standards . Martin Kenny

Advertisers responsible for getting important messages through to a population swamped with advice and warnings suffer from understandable frustration. So, what does it take to make people take notice?

One effective strategy is to appeal to our survival instincts through fear. Fear can be a powerful persuader and is commonly used by advertisers trying to persuade us to change behaviours that can lead to preventable problems. Obesity, cancer screening, road safety, climate change, AIDS prevention, motorcycle helmets, financial security… the list is long. In fact, it’s difficult these days to escape some form of fear-inducing message, be it on television, billboards, magazines, or the internet.

But while fear appeals are a popular communication strategy, not everyone agrees they’re the best approach and more than 50 years of academic research has delivered mixed evidence of their effectiveness. Some openly question their use, cautioning that using fear to promote a cause may do more harm than good. The Grim Reaper AIDS awareness campaign of the late 1980s, for instance, while extremely successful at getting attention was criticised for scaremongering, exaggerating risk and terrifying children.

So this sort of appeal faces another challenge: how to make people realise a threat or problem is likely to affect them without crossing the line of public acceptability?

Recently, the National Stroke Foundation found itself on the wrong side of this line when the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) ruled its advertisement for stroke prevention contained an unjustifiable level of violence for the amount of health information it contained.

Complainants described it as “disturbing” “graphic” and “horrendous”, while the organisation argued it had only resorted to this extreme measure after ten years of tireless but relatively unsuccessful campaigning to bring the issue to the attention of the Australian public.

Persuasion using fear involves conveying a threat with a high level of meaning for the individual – the people it’s aimed at need to believe it can happen to them or affect them in some way.

This can be relatively straightforward for personal health issues, more complicated when trying to convince young drivers they are not invincible but for larger, global issues, it can be a great challenge. The problem with an issue such as climate change, for example, is that many people don’t really feel a tangible, immediate fear of personal consequence and tend to focus on more immediate concerns about the results of economic measures such as carbon pricing.

But creating a threat of sufficient urgency to generate fear is only one side of the equation. The other element (on which research agrees) is efficacy – the viewers' belief that they can follow the offered advice and that this will reduce the threat. The ruling on the National Stroke Foundation ad noted the violent, menacing nature of the message and the lack of any information about how to “avoid, fight or recognise the symptoms of stroke.”

Generally, fear appeals will work best when they make the audience very afraid and then show them how to reduce the threat by doing what is recommended. ASB rulings have been in line with this thinking. In addition to the ruling on the stroke ad, a Western Australian drinking ad complaint was upheld for similar reasons earlier this year – the violent message was deemed to be unrelated to the message being conveyed.

Regulators have to balance the needs of social advertisers to create messages that will grab attention with public standards of acceptable levels of disturbing images in the media. Research suggests that people tend to tolerate higher levels of disturbing material in social marketing but it has to be worth the effort. And there’s always the risk that too many disturbing images will just turn people off altogether.