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College student drinking patterns influence effectiveness of fear-based and humor-based persuasive messages

Previous literature has established the effectiveness of emotional appeals at promoting intention to change behavior. A new study investigated whether fear appeals or humor appeals in anti-alcohol abuse campaigns were more effective at generating interest, creating awareness of drinking-related risks, and promoting readiness to change. The study employed a factorial design: (Fear vs. Humor) x (Non-binge vs. Binge drinkers). Participants were 94 U.S. college students (81% of whom were older than 21 years of age) who completed a survey on their drinking behavior, watched either four humor appeal ads, four fear appeal ads, or no ads (control group), and completed post-surveys to measure the constructs listed above. The authors found participants who watched the fear ads showed higher interest than those who watched the humor ads (p<0.01), participants preferred humor ads to fear ads (p = 0.05), and fear appeal exhibited a higher level of risk perception than humor appeal (p<0.05). In addition, there was a significant interaction between type of appeal and drinking behavior. Participants who reported binge drinking in the humor condition reported greater intent to change their drinking behavior compared to their counterparts in the fear condition (p = 0.08). Participants who did not report binge drinking who were in the fear condition reported greater intent to change than participants who reported binge drinking who were in the humor condition (p < 0.05).

Take away: When planning interventions to risky drinking among college students, the target audience’s drinking patterns should be considered. Fear appeals may not be successful among binge drinkers; humor appeals may be a promising solution.

Citation: Lee MJ. (2017). College students’ responses to emotional anti–alcohol abuse media messages: should we scare or amuse them? [published online ahead of print July 14 2017], Health Promotion Practice doi: 10.1177/1524839917711639

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