“We will fight threats, but only if we’re told how to defeat them”

A fear appeal is a persuasive message that scares someone with the intent to motivate him to act against the threat. But since we don’t like threats, we tend to deny them, or use other defense mechanisms in order to lower our fear. Therefore fear appeals -or ‘fear evoked persuasion’- is a technique that should be used rather delicately.

Multiple variables have been found to influence the effectiveness of fear appeals, such as perceived severity, individual characteristics and -more important -susceptibility. But also the intensity of the fear: weak fear appeals may not attract enough attention, yet strong fear appeals may cause an individual to avoid or ignore a message by employing defense mechanisms.

But even with the right amount of induced fear, fear appeals alone are not persuasive enough to motivate behavior. The most important ingredient in an effective fear appeal cocktail is ‘perceived efficacy’. Perceived efficacy is a combination of both self-efficacy (“can I avert the threat myself?”) and response-efficacy (“will the action recommended indeed avert the threat?”).

A clarifying example:

Imagine you’re a smoker, and you see an anti-smoking campaign displaying a cruel image and words like “a slow and painful death”.

What would you do? Would you think “Oh but I don’t want to die, and surely not slow and painful. I quit!” Well, it turns out that smokers simply deny the message. And even if they don’t, they’ll come up with all sorts of counter-arguments, such as “I smoke only 1 cigarette a day”, “but I eat very healthy”, “there is no family history of heart diseases”, or “hey, my smoking grandma lived to become 90”. You’ve heard them all before.

The campaign shown would probably be more effective if an efficacy boosting call-to-action had been added, such as:

“Smoking can cause a slow and painful death: Join 230.000 successful stoppers, and go to www.stop-simply.de right now!”

Online Persuasion tips


  • Use personally relevant threats (not too small, nor too big).
  • Make sure you directly boost your customers efficacy, by convincingly offering your solution as easy and effective.
  • Provide a clear and strong call-to-action directly after / next to your scaring message.

And of course, when your customer responds, make him feel good again by reassuring he took a step towards a better life ;-)

Further reading on the reflection effect:

  • Dirk Franssens wrote the original version of this post for online-persuasion.com
  • Fear Appeal on Wikipedia
  • Kaylene C. Williams, Research in Business and Economics Journal, “Fear appeal theory”
  • Cohen, E. L., Shumate, M. D. and Gold, A. Health Communication, 22(2), 91-102 (2007). “Anti-Smoking Media Campaign Messages: Theory and Practice”.