Fear Appeals A look at the rhetoric of climate change advertisements

The issue of climate change is undeniably wide-spread and its effects touch every inch of the Earth. While the scientific community is almost unanimously in agreement that human-caused climate change exists, the general public is more evenly divided on the issue (Cook et al, 2016). This raises the question, what can we do to make the public more aware of climate change as a human caused phenomenon? This site explores the use of different types of imagery to invoke fear as a persuasive strategy in climate change advertisements, in an attempt to increase visibility and audience action.

Figure 1: "Seeing the Visual in Argumentation: A Rhetorical Analysis of UNICEF Belgium's Smurf Public Service Announcement"

Marty Birkholt, Katherine Hatfield and Ashley Hinck (2007) discuss fear as a tool for persuasion in their article, "Seeing the Visual in Argumentation: A Rhetorical Analysis of UNICEF Belgium's Smurf Public Service Announcement"; Birkholt et al argue that creators of advertisements use personal experiences to shock viewers into action (p. 144). The authors drew on J. Anthony Blair’s (1996) idea that visual communication does not necessarily need to rely on a specific language or words to be effective; instead, pure visuals, especially in advertisements, prove more convincing if there are few words included (p. 29). This method of appealing to pathos as well as relying on imagery to convey the advertisement’s message proved very successful for the UNICEF Smurfs advertisement.

I will now take a look at this method applied in climate change advertisements.


Disaster as a form of fear is commonly used as a pathos appeal in climate change advertisements. Often, images of natural disasters are used in climate change advertisements, which is one way of forcing an audience response and is the most accessible imagery within the context of climate change. Disaster is used to illustrate the consequences of our actions on the environment, and what might happen if we do not take action to combat climate change.

For nature, everyday is 9/11

Figure 2: "For Nature, Everyday is 9/11"

Figure 2 above is an advertisement depicting two trees meant to look like the Twin Towers during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York City (see Figure 3 for original image). The event was unexpected, unsolicited, and catastrophic; its effects continue to this day, both domestically and internationally. The advertisement was created and distributed in France in 2009 by the Nicolas Hulot Foundation, a French advertising company. The original image of the Twin Towers is iconic and recognizable across the globe, so the fact that this advertisement was developed in France is no surprise, especially since France is both an ally of the United States and a member of the "free-world."

Figure 3: Comparison of advertisement and real image of Twin Towers

Deploying a similar tactic to what Birkholt et al explain in their article, this advertisement is an obvious appeal to the audience's emotion, drawing on personal experiences of the events surrounding 9/11 to "shock viewers into action" (p. 144). At first glance, this image is incredibly unsettling, drawing parallels between the events of 9/11 and the daily effects of climate change. Given the iconic nature of the original image in Figure 2, this connection is bold and effectively invokes fear. As argued by Birkholt et al, fear is used to persuade viewers of the advertisement to think about climate change as a threat to both nature and humans.

Part of the effectiveness of this advertisement comes from the combination of the written message, "For nature, everyday is 9/11," and the iconic image itself. If the advertisement were simply text, the audience would have no visual representation to trigger an emotional response. Blair argues that the interaction of visuals and text can provide a powerful result, which is undeniably present in this advertisement (p. 39). Birkholt et al would likely agree that the advertisement has a strong pathos appeal.

However, while the initial response to this advertisement is very pathos-rich, where does the audience go from there? The success of the UNICEF Smurfs advertisement came from not only the relation of personal experience to the imagery, but a clear step for the audience to take in order to contribute to UNICEF’s cause; there was both a shock and an action step for the audience to consider. Although there is a shock triggered by the comparison of nature to 9/11, the advertisement does not provide a course of action for the audience; therefore, the advertisement loses much of its effectiveness.

What will it take?

Figure 4: "What will it take?"

Figure 4 is a mock digital illustration for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) combating the ever growing threat of global climate change and the apathy broadcasted by Washington D.C. (behance.net). The advertisement depicts the destruction of Washington D.C. as a result of rising sea levels and makes a call for the United States government to take action to prevent further damage as a result of climate change. In the advertisement, you can see nationally known landmarks such as the capitol building, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial floating among destroyed cars.

This advertisement is incredibly United States-centric. Each aspect of Figure 4 is American, including the tail-end of an American Airlines plane, which could be attempting to pull memories of 9/11 into the advertisement. The advertisement makes a clear call to action, "Don't let this be our future, Washington D.C. Stop climate change now." As supported by Blair's argument, the call to action alone is not as powerful as the combination of the chaotic flood overtaking the capitol accompanying the text. However, while Blair’s argument supports the effectiveness of the image, the call to action, “Stop climate change now,” is undeniably vague.

Through the lens of Birkholt et al’s article, the advertisement’s scene of the flooded capital does draw on personal experience. Our exposure as a country to hurricanes and devastating floods is quite extensive. Therefore, making the connection between what was experienced with disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, is an obvious appeal to pathos. Additionally, the presence of floating cars could also trigger a connection between those who drive frequently and the threat of climate change. However, according to Birkholt et al, the success of advertisements that use fear relies heavily upon a clear step for the audience to follow in order to fight climate change. There is no specific action step in this advertisement, despite its appeal to pathos; it simply serves as another example of the undesirable effects of climate change.


Another way fear is used in climate change advertisements is through images of children. Children are used to symbolize innocence and the future in an attempt to persuade those who believe climate change is an issue for future generations. This mindset follows the idea of intra-generational equity. Intra-generational is concerned with equity between people of the same generation; it includes considerations of distribution of resources and justice between nations, and is involved in the plight of underprivileged who are now living. On the other hand, inter-generational equity argues that humans hold the natural and cultural environment of the Earth in common with other members of the present generation and with other generations, past and future. Therefore, intra-generational equity is addressed through the use of children in climate change advertisements.

Act on CO2

The Department of Energy and Climate Change in the U.K. launched a campaign involving the scientific evidence that climate change is man-made and will affect us all; the campaign included the television commercial shown above. The premise is a father reading “not your normal” bedtime story to his daughter. The story is about carbon emissions and is meant to be educational, as well as provide steps for people to reduce their own carbon footprint. Given the presence of action steps, Birkholt et al would likely agree that the advertisement is effective.

However, the audience response to this commercial was incredibly negative. Parents argued that the commercial was too scary for children; the content and tone of the advertisement were too dark and within days of its release, the commercial received over 200 complaints (The Guardian). Thus, instead of advocating for environmental action to protect prosperity, this advertisement resulted in protective parental instincts taking over. This is not a productive way to send a message, and created a polarization between the audience and message.

Though the advertisement effectively evokes fear and does provide ways for audience members to reduce their own carbon emissions, the negative audience response made the advertisement ineffective. Part of the issue comes from a highly polarized audience when it comes to climate change advertisements. The audience for climate change advertisements can be classified into three groups: deniers, those on the fence, and believers. Climate change deniers are those who do not believe in climate change and are not easily persuaded by climate change advertisements. People on the fence are skeptical of the causes, or existence, of climate change, but may be persuaded by an effectively argued advertisement. Climate change believers are those who fully believe in the issue of climate change and are sometimes overcome by the fear associated with the issue, which can result in paralysis.

Not only was the audience of this advertisement parents, but it was also U.K. citizens. If we take a look at the history of U.K. carbon emissions (the main focus of the commercial), they are relatively low in comparison to other powerful countries: United States and Germany (Carbon Emissions). Therefore, audience paralysis could also be due to most of the audience already trying to reduce carbon emissions.

Child Growing campaign

Figure 5: Greenpeace advertisement campaign, "Child Growing"

Figure 5 is an example of a Greenpeace advertising campaign meant to bring attention to rising ocean levels. Each of the campaign’s three posters depicts a young child whose face is partially destroyed due to water damage. The line reads “Your child is growing. Not as fast as the oceans are rising.” The implication is that rising ocean levels will soon effect children, or prosperity, if nothing is done.

This campaign follows Blair’s idea of minimal text in tandem with powerful image. The half soaked posters do an excellent job of pulling on parents’ heartstrings, providing an example of what might happen in the future if action is not taken in the present. Additionally, Birkholt et al’s theory of memory and shock applies because any parent can look at the posters and replace the child with their own. However, what is still missing is a concrete action step.


Part of the problem with fear appeals, especially in climate change advertisements, is that fear can easily backfire. As I illustrated with the 9/11, WWF mock-up, and Greenpeace “Child Growing” advertisements, the pathos and fear appeals were there, but there were no clear action steps, making the advertisements easily overlooked or useless. With the carbon emissions commercial, fear was so present in the advertisement that it angered the audience, triggering protective parental instincts. This phenomenon is called fight or flight; we perceive danger and either ignore it and move on, as demonstrated with the 9/11, WWF, and Greenpeace advertisements, or fight back, as shown by the audience response to the U.K. carbon emissions commercial.

Effective use of fear appeals

Despite the counter argument, when fear appeals are used well, they should evoke desired audience response. In order for fear to be motivating, an escape route must be provided for the audience to follow; this idea is central to Birkholt et al’s argument. Ronald Rogers (1975) developed and idea called Protection Motivation Theory. Essentially, the theory is used to craft effective threat frameworks, which can be especially effective in advertising. In order for a threat to be effective, its consequences must be undesirable and threaten danger to the audience, the threat can be avoided through following the provided escape route (action steps), and the route itself must be accessible.

Some possibilities for using fear effectively in climate change advertisements include understanding the breadth of audience. Trying to communicate with and persuade an audience is much easier when you narrow your message for that specific audience. Perhaps the carbon emissions advertisement would have been effective if it was directed at a group of people who did not already believe in human-caused climate change; the commercial had each of Birkholt et al’s criteria for an effective fear appeal, but the audience was wrong. Another possibility for effective fear appeals is considering Protection Motivation Theory when creating a climate change advertisement; providing the audience with an escape route from the fear they experience through the advertisement is very important.

The visual rhetoric of climate change is an important topic given the widespread nature of the issue, and if we are able to identify effective communication and persuasive strategies, it will make a world of difference.

Created By
Emma Larson


Created with images by cocoparisienne - "polar bear iceberg ice floe" • 3dman_eu - "hurricane devastation destruction" • Pexels - "children fun happy" • Ana_J - "clouds sun sky"

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