How does the public respond to fear appeals? A randomized controlled experimental study of e-cigarettes


Due to merchants’ misleading propaganda and people’s vague perceptions, the e-cigarettes, which have the same harm as cigarettes, are becoming more and more popular, especially among young people. Therefore, it is urgent for government to explain the dangers of e-cigarettes to the public, and advocate them to stay away from it. According to domestic and foreign academic research and empirical perspectives on tobacco control practices, fear appeals is an effective way of communicating with the public. 

This article is based on the Extended Parallel Process Model(EPPM), integrates the Appraisal-Tendency Framework(ATF), and introduces the public emotion as a variable in examining the public's response to the fear appeals. It refines public emotions into three dimensions: anxiety, fear, and anger, and then describes in detail the impact path of fear appeals on public protection motivation. Then, based on official media reports and government reports in China, this article sorts out the information on fear appeals, and uses a 2 × 2 experiment to test its effectiveness and action path. 

The study has found that high-threat and high-efficiency fear appeals can increase the perception of the public on e-cigarettes’ danger, triggering emotions like anxiety, fear, and anger, thereby motivating them to stay away from smokers and quit e-cigarettes. On the path of efficacy perception, although perceived efficacy of the public can effectively enhance its protection motivation, any level of fear appeals has no significant effect on the efficacy perception. At the level of segmented groups, any degree of fear appeals cannot cause smokers’ threat perception of e-cigarettes and a strong fear appeal can effectively improve women’s efficacy perception. 

Based on above, this study believes that there is too much publicity about the harm of e-cigarettes in the current China's official tobacco control propaganda, but the relevance between e-cigarettes and the general public and effective tobacco control methods that public can take are insufficiently introduced. In the future, we can break away from the traditional thinking of just telling people about scientific research and data, and further integrate tobacco control publicity with emotions, social relationships and daily life of the public. Combining tobacco control work with people's life scene to enhance their concrete perception of tobacco’s harm, and carry out different risk communication methods for different groups to improve their perceived efficacy.