Fear Tactics – Appeal to Reason or Fear?

Jan 12

When you want to convince someone to change a behavior, do you appeal to their sense of reason or to their fear? A recent Public Service Announcement by the New York City Health and Mental Hygiene Department says it’s time to scare young African American and Hispanic men about HIV/AIDS. Titled It’s Never Just HIV, the video graphically depicts what the disease can do to your body and mind even though we have effective treatments to manage the fatal condition.

Dr. Monica Sweeney, the city’s assistant commissioner of HIV prevention and control, has been quoted as saying, “you need to hit hard and do something to counteract the pharmaceutical ads that say having HIV is a walk in the park.” The department says it is just building off of the success of their anti-smoking campaign that also used graphic images to get attention and drive home a point.

Larry Kramer, who is HIV positive and a long time AIDS activist (he founded Act Up nearly 25 years ago), thinks the ad hits it target and marks a shift away from the “lily-livered nicey-nicey ‘prevention’ tactics (that) have failed.”

Having lived through the AIDS crisis of the 80’s and 90’s as well as having covered the disease and its devastation for CNN for ten years, I share Kramer’s concern for the compliancy that currently surrounds the condition. It’s not news anymore despite the fact it is still claiming and destroying lives.

The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and others have criticized the ad. They say a more positive message about condom use would be more effective in helping prevent transmission. They say there are more successful ways of promoting prevention, “than perpetuating outdated images of sickness, dying and death.”

If nothing else, the ad has started a debate about the need to educate young men about a disease that affected and continues to affect the lives and well being of millions. Since the New York Times covered it in its article Graphic HIV Ad by New York City Splits Activists – HIV prevention is back in the news.

While the jury is still out on whether it can change behavior, “fear” is definitely a better news hook than “reason.”

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 at 1:55 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Media, Ogilvy Washington, Public Health, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Fear Tactics – Appeal to Reason or Fear?”

  1. Ben Garrett says:

    I think the PSA is an interesting new way to approach a public health problem that is being ignored at least a little because of the success of the anti-viral therapies. I think your points are well made. Scare tactics while heavy handed do actually attract attention, and awareness is more than half the battle here.