Ethics & fear appeals

I love my students!  Not a day goes by when I don’t learn something from them.  They usually don’t know it – but they are so important.

I’ve been researching the ethics of fear appeals for the past year and I’m getting close to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard as it turns out) to produce an academic paper on this from a theoretical perspective.  Then, during an online forum discussion among my grad students comes a post from one who had attended an award dinner where public relations professionals were giving themselves awards.  (PR is becoming more like advertising every day in this respect it seems: the advertising industry gives themselves more awards than Hollywood.  For more about this phenomenon, see Al and Laura Ries’s book The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR.[i])

A campaign selected for an award that evening was one focused on teen drinking and driving.  It seems that the New Brunswick Liquor Board created a social marketing campaign using a social media strategy to launch it.  They created a fictional story of a teen who had killed his best friend in a car crash – he was drunk and behind the wheel.  The fictional teen (an actor) created an amateurish video and posted it to YouTube.  Then he did another and another and then one of his ‘friends’ (another fictional teen) posted one about how he had killed her boyfriend.  Then there was one about the funeral.  Need I go on?  So far so good, but there are several problems here.  I won’t’go into the evaluation debacle (all those testimonials on their companion web site that focus on the notion that the campaign is a good one if it gets the message out (never mind whether or not it actually changed teens’ drinking and driving behavior long-term). 

I’m interested in the ethics of fear mongering – and this case presents me with a good example, but even more interesting is that it presents an ethics debate that I thought we had laid to rest: to whit, the notion of concealing the true identity of the video creator on YouTube. 

Sunsilk set the standard for this with their Bridezilla video a few years ago when they created the mother of all fake videos on YouTube. 
But the ethics debate began then – I guess some people didn’t get the memo yet. The ethics and politics of social media sites are at the heart of the ethics debate.  YouTube was originally designed to be a place where amateur videographers and performers could share themselves and their stories with their world and where others could comment (such is the social part of YouTube).  Early on, advertisers realized that they were missing out on a hugely important communication technology and got into the act.  Many produced specially designed ads and the like, while others such as the Sunsilk people, produced videos that looked like they were from amateur users, and even failed to identify in any way the actual source which means that the purpose of the video is hidden.  This lack of transparency is what leads to the conclusion that the video may be misleading.  The context within which a video such as the ones posted by the NB Liquor Board are viewed have a huge impact on both the perception of the integrity of the producer and on the message itself in the end. 

All one needs to do is read some of the comments from the viewers (presumably in that 16-19 year-old demographic that the Liquor Board indicates in their literature is the target of the campaign) to see what they thought of it.  I particularly liked the comment from one astute viewer: “It’s ‘almost’ as dignified as, say, holding a wet t-shirt contest in support of breast cancer research.”  I wonder how many of them would be able to post a comment indicating that they would never drink and drive again.  That’s the kind of attitude (followed up by behavior) that a successful social marketing campaign needs.

The campaign is to follow up with more traditional social marketing tactics (posters etc), but I’m more concerned about the flagrant disregard for honesty that accompanies such ‘creativity.’


[i] Ries, Al & Ries, Laura.  (2002).  The fall of advertising and the rise of PR.  New York: Harper Business.


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