Why Fear Has No Place in Environmental Campaigns

Let’s talk about fear.

It seems that whenever people are trying to change driving behaviour and increase road safety, they use the scariest and bloodiest commercial that they think they can get away with. Today I would like to contrast that idea, of scaring people into changing their behaviour with this:

Sussex Safer Roads produced this video in 2010 to promote the behaviour of wearing a seatbelt, and you will notice the distinct lack of any graphic images. Although it is hard to actually compare the rate of success a commercial has in changing behaviour, we do know this video went viral with almost 12 million views in the first 10 months.

Why Fear?

For road safety, fear is a very popular tool to change behaviour. Campaign managers are trying to take advantage of the same thing that makes people so afraid of shark attacks: availability bias. Humans tend to judge probabilities based on how easily examples come to mind, so because the idea of shark attacks are so vivid people think they are much more likely to get attacked by a shark than they actually are. For this strategy, the scarier a commercial, the better. As we see more violent and graphic images on tv we become desensitized and the ads have to continue to be more shocking. We can end up in this upward cycle of increasingly vivid ads, which really brings into question the ethics of putting out this type of image for mass consumption.

Fear and the Environment

In his book “Fostering Sustainable Behaviour” (which can be find online here for free. Whaaaat?!?) Doug Mckenzie-Mohr outlines the role of threatening messages for the environment. He explains that Richard Lazarus’ research identifies two types of coping when individuals are presented with threatening messages.

  1. Problem-focused coping: people are motivated to action
  2. Emotion-focused coping: people ignore or deny the message and the issue

Further research done by Doug Mckenzie-Mohr finds that the factor effecting which type of coping individuals experience is based on their sense of community. If individuals do not feel a common purpose with others, and there is little they can do by themselves, that is when we see this emotion-focused coping.

This is why in our 10 Rules of Marketing, Rule #9 advises to completely stay away from fearful messages in environmental campaigns. All of these problems are so large that it is very likely individuals will feel that the small changes they can make will not be very significant in the grand scheme of things. This is especially true of threatening mass media stunts. For instance, I remember 2 years ago when I saw the environmental documentary “Revolution” which went through all the ways that the changing climate is affecting our planet, emphasizing the effects on oceans.  At the very end of the movie there was a “things you can do” portion with a few quick things. I walked out of that movie I felt a little confused. I already knew all the issues, but I didn’t feel empowered to do anything, I just felt a little helpless. This is actually one of the key events that lead me down the path of social marketing. But the main point of this story is that this threatening information about what could happen, and is happening, to our planet did not scare me into doing anything. Just like information is not enough on it’s own, neither is fear.

Rhino horns

Blood and gore campaigns are not nearly as common in the environmental realm as some other areas, though that is not to say that they don’t happen. Does anyone remember “The Cove” where the water in the bay is turned red with the blood of dolphins? Or for a more recent example, Break the Brand has a campaign to help stop the trade of rhino horn in Vietnam. Here is one of their posters:

Bloody Rhino Horn

As an outsider (full-disclosure, I am not a Vietnamese businessman and I have never even seen a rhino horn) I can look at this and think “This is awful and something has to be done”, but when I watch a video like this one about the conditions for chickens on farms, I didn’t change.

Why? Because chicken tastes good, everyone else eats it, and the majority of people seem unconcerned with how chickens are raised. The video was gross, and I probably stopped eating chicken for a bit, but I definitely had chicken wings for dinner tonight. Showing people gruesome images is not a magic bullet for changing behaviour. For the sake of comparison, let’s look at another campaign trying to achieve the same outcome:


This is a much more positive campaign, using the Vietnamese value of Chi to guide social norms away from this cruel practice. In fact, on their website, the makers of this campaign say:

Traditional campaigns have used the plight of the rhino to motivate people to stop buying rhino horn however research has shown that many of the users of rhino horn do not have any affinity for wildlife and so these campaigns will have limited impact. Users also don’t feel responsible for rhinos being killed as they are not the ones who are pulling the trigger.Save the Rhino

Social marketers have so many fantastic tools available to encourage behaviours, and more is being discovered every day about how humans think and act. Do we really need to include a message that causes stress in individuals, and is just as likely to not work as to work?

Fear is the path to the Dark side

Remember folks, if Yoda says it, it must be true.


Alison Carlyle is a #forever student with an environmental focus. In the fall she will be headed to the University of Brighton to continue her education in social marketing in the MSc (Social Marketing) programme. Follow her on Twitter or LinkIn with her.

Photo Credit: Michael


Mckenzie-Mohr, D. (2011). Fostering sustainable behavior: An introduction to community-based social marketing. (3rd ed., pp. 100-101). Canada: New Society Publishers.

What does a wildlife criminal look like? Break the Brand. Retrieved on August 18, 2015 from http://breakingthebrand.org/campaigns/

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