Background: With the increasing health burden and tobacco related kills, anti-smoking campaigns have become an important part of public health policy. Both physical and social threat appeals are prevalent strategies, but hardly compared according to their effectiveness.
Methods: This experimental study examined the effects of physical versus threat appeals in anti-smoking messages among a sample of 227 Flemish adults and tested the mediating role of a general fear of life-threatening diseases.
Results: In general the results showed very limited effects of both physical and social threat appeals on the attitudes and behavioural intentions of adults. However, smokers who were exposed to social threats unexpectedly reported less favourable intentions to stop smoking than other smokers. In addition, anti-smoking attitudes proliferated among young adults when their fear of life-threatening diseases increased, whereas older adults’ anti-smoking attitudes attenuated with higher fears of life-threatening diseases.
Conclusion: Evidence is provided that social treat appeals may yield defensive responses, such as message avoidance or threat denial among smokers. The execution of anti-smoking campaigns should depend heavily on the aims of policy makers (i.e., long-term attitudinal or short-term behavioural changes), as well as the characteristics of the target group (i.e., smoker/non-smoker, younger/older age group and their existing fears of life-threatening diseases).