Leventhal’s Tetanus Experiments: Does Fear Persuade or Paralyse?

by | May 8, 2020


Another in our series of experiments that still impact marketing today.

See the other stories here:

  1. The Photocopier Effect: The Secret to Making Your Claims Instantly More Credible

In the mid-1960’s, Howard Leventhal, a social psychologist from Yale University, USA, invited a group of 30 senior students to participate in what they thought was an experiment on a public health brochure evaluation.

The tetanus pamphlet, as it was called, was to be evaluated for its persuasiveness in communicating the dangers of tetanus and the importance of inoculation.

To that effect, the students read the pamphlet, carefully analysed its contents and filled out the evaluation report. When they were done they handed it to the experimenter and went on their merry way thinking the experiment was over. In reality, though, the experiment had just begun.

What the Participants Did Not Know

While Leventhal really was trying to measure the persuasiveness of the pamphlet, his measure of effectiveness was not how persuasive the participants thought or said it was but how it actually affected their behaviour. He wanted to see how many of the participants would subsequently get vaccinated. To make things interesting, he gave different students different pamphlets.

Those in the ‘high fear’ group received booklets with powerful language describing the risks of contracting tetanus and vividly frightening images to show what it did to people. For those in the low fear group, the experimenters toned down the language and took out the distressing images.

Leventhal wanted to see if higher fear levels in the pamphlet would lead to a higher number of participants seeking inoculation.

It did not.

After making regular checks with the medical centre for over a month, Leventhal found that only one person out of the whole group had subsequently got the vaccination. Apart from scaring the living day lights out of the participants, the fear appeal, and especially the high fear appeal, did nothing to persuade the participants to seek vaccination.

Why Did the Fear Fail To Persuade?

Leventhal could not work out why this had happened. Had the participants not understood the dangers of tetanus? Had they not understood the importance of being vaccinated?

Leventhal analysed their evaluation reports to see if this was the case. To his surprise, the reports not only showed the students clearly understood the nature and seriousness of tetanus but also the importance of being vaccinated. What was more, the reports revealed that most students intended to get vaccinated. Despite the good intentions, however, only one of the participants followed through with their plans.

By any measure the pamphlet was a complete failure.

Leventhal’s Breakthrough

Then Leventhal tried including specific instructions on how to deal with the threat of tetanus. He included a map of the university medical centre and listed the times the centre provided the free tetanus shots.

This time the number of participants getting vaccinated rose from the measly 3.3% to an impressive 33% – a 10 fold increase in persuasive muscle.

The Trick to Using Fear in Persuasion

Leventhal concluded that for messages using fear appeals to be persuasive, there must be specific, clear and explicitly listed steps the audience can take to resolve the presented threat. Otherwise the fear will paralyse the audience and they will simply choose denial to deal with their dilemma.

If you are a public health marketer, for example, rather than simply telling your target market the dangers of a certain disease, e.g. diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or the dangers of a certain activity, e.g. smoking, overeating, drug abuse or alcohol abuse, also list the specific steps they can take to overcome their problem. Otherwise you will just be scaring their pants off with nothing to show for it.

Remember, fear alone does not persuade, it paralyses.

Transforming Fear into Action: Unveiling the Marketing Genius in Howard Leventhal’s Tetanus Experiment

Harnessing Psychological Insights to Propel Digital Campaign Effectiveness

Expanding upon the insights from Howard Leventhal’s tetanus experiment, the implications for modern-day marketing and advertising are profound, especially in the digital realm. As digital marketers, we often wield the power of persuasive messaging to drive engagement and lead generation. However, as evidenced by Leventhal’s study, merely agitating the pain points or fears of our prospective clients is not enough; providing a clear pathway to resolution is fundamental.

In the digital marketing sphere, this implies that our campaigns should not only highlight the challenges or pain points that our target audience faces but also provide actionable steps or solutions to overcome these challenges. For instance, when deploying SEO, Google Ads, or Facebook Ads strategies, it’s crucial to follow a two-pronged approach. First, identify and acknowledge the problem, and second, offer your service or product as a tangible solution, complete with clear instructions on how to take the next step.

Furthermore, the utilization of a clear Call To Action (CTA) can be seen as a modern-day parallel to Leventhal’s inclusion of specific instructions in his pamphlets. A compelling CTA, placed prominently on landing pages or within advertisement creatives, can act as a directive guide, helping to alleviate the audience’s concerns by offering a straightforward next step. This not only simplifies the decision-making process but also propels the audience from a state of fear or concern to a more empowered, actionable state.

Moreover, Leventhal’s experiment underscores the importance of understanding consumer psychology and behavior, which are central to creating optimized, conversion-centric campaigns. By employing a thorough understanding of our audience’s fears and concerns, coupled with a clear, actionable solution, we can significantly enhance the efficacy of our marketing efforts across all digital channels. This holistic approach, rooted in empirical psychological insights, positions not only our campaigns but also our clients for greater success in the digital marketplace.

How We Can Help You Leverage This Information

In light of the profound insights gleaned from Howard Leventhal’s tetanus experiment, it’s clear that effective marketing extends beyond merely identifying and echoing the fears or challenges faced by potential customers. It necessitates providing a clear, actionable pathway to address these challenges. As a digital marketing agency specialized in lead generation across various digital channels, we excel in crafting campaigns that not only resonate with your target audience but also guide them towards actionable solutions, significantly enhancing the prospect of conversions. By meticulously blending psychological insights with robust digital marketing strategies, we elevate your brand’s digital presence, ensuring your audience moves beyond fear into a realm of informed, empowered action.

Embrace a marketing strategy that transcends the norm, engages the psyche, and delivers tangible results. Reach out to us today, and let’s transform your digital marketing journey from merely resonating to effectively persuading and converting.

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About the Author - 3am Ideas

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