Want to Change a Woman? Run an Ad Based on Fear

Eating tofu gives you cancer.  If you're a woman, that will scare you enough to stop eating it.  If you're a man, maybe not so much.

A new study has found that fear-based appeals appear to be effective at influencing attitudes and behaviors, especially among women, according to a comprehensive review of over 50 years of research on the topic, published by the American Psychological Association, reported by newswise.com.

"There are very few circumstances under which they are not effective and there are no identifiable circumstances under which they backfire and lead to undesirable outcomes,” newswise.com quotes Dolores Albarracin, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an author of the study.

Fear appeals are persuasive messages that emphasize the potential danger and harm that will befall individuals if they do not adopt the messages’ recommendations. While these types of messages are commonly used in political, public health and commercial advertising campaigns (smoking will kill you, Candidate A will destroy the economy), their use is controversial as academics continue to debate their effectiveness.

They found fear appeals to be effective, especially when they contained recommendations for one-time only (versus repeated) behaviors and if the targeted audience included a larger percentage of women. They also confirmed prior findings that fear appeals are effective when they describe how to avoid the threat (get the vaccine, use a condom).

More important, researchers say, there was no evidence in the analysis that fear appeals backfired to produce a worse outcome relative to a control group.

“Fear produces a significant though small amount of change across the board. Presenting a fear appeal more than doubles the probability of change relative to not presenting anything or presenting a low-fear appeal,” says Albarracin.

And, oh by the way, tofu does not give you cancer.

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