So, why not use fear to drive up vaccination rates and the use of masks, lockdowns and distancing now, at this moment of national fatigue? Why not sear into the national imagination images of makeshift morgues or of people dying alone, intubated in overwhelmed hospitals? Before we can answer these questions, we must first ask two others: Would fear be ethically acceptable in the context of COVID-19, and would it work? For people in high-risk groups – those who are older or have underlying conditions that put them at high risk for severe illness or death – the evidence on fear-based appeals suggests that hard-hitting campaigns can work. The strongest case for the efficacy of fear-based appeals comes from smoking: Emotional PSAs put out by organizations like the American Cancer Society beginning in the 1960s proved to be a powerful antidote to tobacco sales ads. Anti-tobacco crusaders found in fear a way to appeal to individuals’ self-interests.
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