Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The use of fear in SAAQ’s advertising

Again this year, the SAAQ (Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec) displays a lack of discernment in its choice of advertising theme. Confronted with a degrading road safety record, it chooses to use fear and guilt to induce an attitude change in faulty drivers. The chosen theme for 2007 is «Accidents hurt… a lot of people» and the setting is dramatic not to say plainly morbid. You may watch those ads on the SAAQ Web site.

Now, for a long time, studies show that the use of fear and guilt is not without danger. In fact, this strategy may induce a reaction opposite to the one intended (D. Cohen, Advertising, 1972, p. 418): «However, studies in the communication process have indicated that where people are highly anxious, the fear approach may not be successful, but in fact may boomerang so that the highly anxious individual would not accept the message». Furthermore, studies by Janis and Feshbach (1961) and Terwilliger (1963) have shown that a message calling upon fear, used for already anxious people, stimulates a person’s defences and impedes the change of attitude wished for. This phenomenon is confirmed by recent studies (K. E. Clow et D. Baack, Integrated Advertising, Promotion, & Marketing Communications, 2002, p. 308): «On the other hand, an advertisement with a high level of fear can be detrimental. A message that is too strong causes feelings of anxiety. This leads viewers to avoid watching the ad, by changing the channel or muting the sound».

It is surprising to see the SAAQ use this type of advertising again in 2007, since their use did not succeed in improving the road safety record; on the contrary, based on this organization’s own survey, it has worsened if anything, thus showing the low utility of the concept.

In addition to the risk of seeing those ads not allowing the SAAQ to meet its commendable objectives of reducing accidents and deaths on the roads, one must also consider another perverse effect: that of traumatizing sensitive people, in no way targeted by this advertising.

Completely on the other hand, the CSST (Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail) understands that intense fear and shocking scenes are useless, even harmful. If the 2002 advertising «Do not let death do its work» called upon really gruesome scenes, the 2007 campaign «Do everything so that nothing happens» is on the contrary very positive; it illustrates the benefits of safety, using a subtle level of fear, which suggests dangers without causing negative reactions.

What do you think of SAAQ and CSST advertising?

Do you believe that SAAQ ads are too shocking? Too gruesome?

Do you agree with the use of the fear and the guilt in advertising from governmental or paragovernmental agencies?

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