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Fear appeal effectiveness for familiar and unfamiliar issues

Patrick De Pelsmacker (Department of Marketing, Faculty of Applied Economics, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium)
Verolien Cauberghe (Department of Communications Sciences, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium)
Nathalie Dens (Department of Marketing, Faculty of Applied Economics, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium)

Journal of Social Marketing

ISSN: 2042-6763

Article publication date: 11 October 2011




The purpose of this paper is to investigate the effect of level of graphic threat (weak and strong) and the amount of information (low and high) on message effectiveness for an unfamiliar (a muscle disorder due to lack of physical exercise) vs a familiar (injuries as a result of traffic accidents due to drunk driving) issue.


The method employed was experimental 2 (issue familiarity: unfamiliar, familiar issue)×2 (amount of information: low, high)×2 (graphic threat level: weak, strong) full factorial between‐subjects design. Data are collected from a sample of 206 Belgians.


It was found that a strong graphic threat message has a greater effect for an unfamiliar than for a familiar issue. For a familiar issue, adding information to a weak threat appeal increases perceived severity. For an unfamiliar issue, adding information to a strong graphic threat appeal has a similar effect. Perceived severity of threat, perceived probability of occurrence, evoked fear and perceived coping efficacy have a significant effect on the intention to adopt the recommended behavior. For an unfamiliar issue, perceived efficacy and perceived probability of occurrence primarily have the greatest impact on coping intention. For a familiar issue, perceived severity, evoked fear and perceived efficacy determine coping intention.

Practical implications

The results substantially support the use of different message tactics for health threats that are either new or familiar for the target group.


Most studies have limited themselves to studying the impact of threat strength on perceived threat and response efficacy, on evoked fear and on message acceptance. The present study adds the contextual and message elements, namely issue familiarity and amount of information provided, the link of which with threat appeal has – as far to the authors' knowledge never been studied before in one integrated analysis.



De Pelsmacker, P., Cauberghe, V. and Dens, N. (2011), "Fear appeal effectiveness for familiar and unfamiliar issues", Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 1 No. 3, pp. 171-191.



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Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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