Exploring the Persuasion Effects of Threatening Content in COVID-19 Advertising: The Roles of Threat Intensity and Sensation Seeking on Consumer Attitudes

Main Article Content

Quan Xie
Tianjiao (Grace) Wang


COVID-19 Advertising, Threat Intensity, Sensation Seeking, Warmth, Gratitude


The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a wave of advertising activities advocating care for the community in a time of crisis. These COVID-19 ads often feature threatening depictions of the crisis as a persuasion strategy. Hence, the present study explores the persuasion effects of COVID-19 advertising by focusing on threat persuasion. Specifically, by adopting an online experiment with 724 U.S. participants, this study investigates how the threat intensity of crisis depictions featured in COVID-19 ads (low vs. medium vs. high) interact with individual differences in sensation-seeking in order to impact ads and brand attitudes, through the mediating pathways of positive moral emotions (warmth and gratitude) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) authenticity. The results reveal that the high-threat crisis depiction generates the lowest warmth and ad attitudes, whereas the medium-threat crisis depiction yields the strongest gratitude and better brand attitudes than the low-threat crisis depiction, but only for low sensation seekers (LSS). Also, for LSS, exposure to the medium-threat (versus low-threat) crisis depiction increases their gratitude, which leads to higher CSR authenticity, and, eventually results in more favorable ad or brand attitudes. On the contrary, for high sensation seekers, threat intensity does not have an indirect effect on the ad or brand attitudes via warmth, gratitude, and CSR authenticity.


Download data is not yet available.
Abstract 266 | pdf Downloads 113


Aaker, D. A., Stayman, D. M., & Hagerty, M. R. (1986). Warmth in advertising: Measurement, impact, and sequence effects. Journal of Consumer Research, 12(4), 365-381.Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/254299
Alhouti, S., Johnson, C. M., & Holloway, B. B. (2016). Corporate social responsibility authenticity: Investigating its antecedents and outcomes. Journal of Business Research, 69(3), 1242-1249.doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2015.09.007
Bartlett, M. Y., & DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude and prosocial behavior: Helping when it costs you. Psychological Science, 17(4), 319-325.doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01705.
Becker, G. S., & Tomes, N. (1986). Human capital and the rise and fall of families. Journal of Labor Economics, 4(3, Part 2), S1-S39.Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2534952
Beckman, T., Colwell, A. & Cunningham, P.H. The Emergence of Corporate Social Responsibility in Chile: The Importance of Authenticity and Social Networks. J Bus Ethics 86 (Suppl 2), 191–206 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-009-0190-1
Bolton, L. E., & Mattila, A. S. (2015). How does corporate social responsibility affect consumer response to service failure in buyer–seller relationships? Journal of Retailing, 91(1), 140-153.doi: 10.1016/j.jretai.2014.10.001
Brennan, L., & Binney, W. (2010). Fear, guilt, and shame appeals in social marketing. Journal of Business Research, 63(2), 140-146.doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2009.02.006
Burnett, J. J., & Wilkes, R. E. (1980). Fear appeals to segments only. Journal of Advertising Research, 20(5), 21–24.Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1981-09025-001
Bustin, G. M., Jones, D. N., Hansenne, M., & Quoidbach, J. (2015). Who does Red Bull give wings to? Sensation seeking moderates sensitivity to subliminal advertisement. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 825.doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00825
Chang, C. T., & Tseng, C. H. (2013). Can sex sell bread? The impacts of sexual appeal type, product type and sensation seeking. International Journal of Advertising, 32(4), 559-585.doi: 10.2501/IJA-32-4-559-585
Chen, X. (2013). Happiness and authenticity: Confucianism and Heidegger. Journal of Philosophical Research, 38, 261-274. doi: 10.5840/jpr20133813
Chung, H., Ahn, E., & Kang, S. (2016). Processing anti-smoking ads among college students: The role of emotional response and level of smoking. Journal of Promotion Management, 22(3), 370-385. doi: 10.1080/10496491.2016.1154918
Cooper, A. B., Sherman, R. A., Rauthmann, J. F., Serfass, D. G., & Brown, N. A. (2018). Feeling good and authentic: Experienced authenticity in daily life is predicted by positive feelings and situation characteristics, not trait-state consistency. Journal of Research in Personality, 77, 57-69. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2018.09.005
Cuddy, A. J., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2008). Warmth and competence as universal dimensions of social perception: The stereotype content model and the BIAS map. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 61-149. doi: 10.1016/S0065-2601(07)00002-0
Dan, A. (2020). Every COVID-19 commercial Is exactly the same. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/avidan/2020/04/19/every-covid-19-commercial-is-exactly-the-same/?sh=735aa2b5667b.
Dickinson, S., & Holmes, M. (2008). Understanding the emotional and coping responses of adolescent individuals exposed to threat appeals. International Journal of Advertising, 27(2), 251-278. doi: 10.1080/02650487.2008.11073054
Dillard, J. P., & Anderson, J. W. (2004). The role of fear in persuasion. Psychology & Marketing, 21(11), 909-926.
Dillard, J. P., & Peck, E. (2001). Persuasion and the structure of affect. Dual systems and discrete emotions as complementary models. Human Communication Research, 27(1), 38-68.doi: 10.1093/hcr/27.1.38
Donohew, L., Lorch, E. P., & Palmgreen, P. (1998). Applications of a theoretic model of information exposure to health interventions. Human communication research, 24(3), 454-468.
Facebook (2020). We’re never lost if we can find each other. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWwVFywBCeY&t=7s
Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., & Glick, P. (2007). Universal dimensions of social cognition: Warmth and competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(2), 77-83.doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2006.11.005
Freimuth, V. S., Hammond, S. L., Edgar, T., & Monahan, J. L. (1990). Reaching those at risk: A content-analytic study of AIDS PSAs. Communication Research, 17(6), 775-791.doi: 10.1177/009365029001700604
Fritz, K., Schoenmueller, V., & Bruhn, M. (2017). Authenticity in branding–exploring antecedents and consequences of brand authenticity. European Journal of Marketing. 51(2), 324-348. doi: 10.1108/EJM-10-2014-0633
Hayes, A. F. (2017). Introduction to mediation, moderation, and conditional process analysis: A regression-based approach. Guilford publications.
Heineken (2020). Heineken connections. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZnHkv5-z4k
Hoyle, R. H., Stephenson, M. T., Palmgreen, P., Lorch, E. P., & Donohew, R. L. (2002). Reliability and validity of a brief measure of sensation seeking. Personality and Individual Differences, 32(3), 401-414.doi: 10.1016/S0191-8869(01)00032-0
HyundaiWorldwide (2020). #ThisIsUs part 2. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJQfb6SLAZg
Janis, I. L., & Feshbach, S. (1953). Effects of fear-arousing communications. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 48(1), 78-92.doi: 10.1037/h0060732
Joo, S., Miller, E. G., & Fink, J. S. (2019). Consumer evaluations of CSR authenticity: Development and validation of a multidimensional CSR authenticity scale. Journal of Business Research, 98, 236-249.doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2019.01.060
Keller Punam A., and Lauren G. Block (1996), “Increasing the Persuasiveness of Fear Appeals: The Effect of Arousal and Elaboration,” Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (March), 448–59.
Kim, E. E. K., Kang, J., & Mattila, A. S. (2012). The impact of prevention vs. promotion hope on CSR activities. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 31(1), 43-51.doi: 10.1016/j.ijhm.2011.05.004
Lenton, A. P., Slabu, L., Bruder, M., & Sedikides, C. (2014). Identifying differences in the experience of (in) authenticity: A latent class analysis approach. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 770.doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00770
McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. A. (2002). The grateful disposition: a conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(1), 112-127.doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.82.1.112
McWilliams, A., & Siegel, D. (2001). Corporate social responsibility: A theory of the firm perspective. Academy of Management Review, 26(1), 117-127.doi: 10.2307/259398
Mohr, L. A., Eroǧlu, D., & Ellen, P. S. (1998). The development and testing of a measure of skepticism toward environmental claims in marketers' communications. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 32(1), 30-55.Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23859544.
Moulard, J. G., Garrity, C. P., & Rice, D. H. (2015). What makes a human brand authentic? Identifying the antecedents of celebrity authenticity. Psychology & Marketing, 32(2), 173-186.doi: 10.1002/mar.20771
Palmatier, R. W., Jarvis, C. B., Bechkoff, J. R., & Kardes, F. R. (2009). The role of customer gratitude in relationship marketing. Journal of Marketing, 73(5), 1-18.doi: 10.1509/jmkg.73.5.1
Park, C. W., Mothersbaugh, D. L., & Feick, L. (1994). Consumer knowledge assessment. Journal of Consumer Research, 21(1), 71-82.Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2489741.
Quick, B. L., & Stephenson, M. T. (2008). Examining the role of trait reactance and sensation seeking on perceived threat, state reactance, and reactance restoration. Human Communication Research, 34(3), 448-476.doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.2008.00328.x
Raggio, R. D., & Folse, J. A. G. (2011). Expressions of gratitude in disaster management: An economic, social marketing, and public policy perspective on post-Katrina campaigns. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 30(2), 168-174.doi: 10.1509/jppm.30.2.168
Roskos‐Ewoldsen, D. R., Yu, J. H., & Rhodes, N. (2004). Fear appeal messages affect accessibility of attitudes toward the threat and adaptive behaviors. Communication Monographs, 71(1), 49-69.doi: 10.1080/0363452042000228559
Schoenbachler, D. D., & Whittler, T. E. (1996). Adolescent processing of social and physical threat communications. Journal of advertising, 25(4), 37-54.
Septianto, F., Kemper, J. A., & Northey, G. (2020). Thanks, but no thanks: The influence of gratitude on consumer awareness of food waste. Journal of Cleaner Production, 258, 120591.doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2020.120591
Shin, S., Ki, E. J., & Griffin, W. G. (2017). The effectiveness of fear appeals in ‘green’advertising: An analysis of creative, consumer, and source variables. Journal of Marketing Communications, 23(5), 473-492.doi: 10.1080/13527266.2017.1290671
Simons, J. S., & Carey, K. B. (2006). An affective and cognitive model of marijuana and alcohol problems. Addictive Behaviors, 31(9), 1578-1592.doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2005.12.004
Stephenson, M. T., Palmgreen, P., Hoyle, R. H., Donohew, L., Lorch, E., & Colon, S. E. (1999). Short-term effects of an anti-marijuana media campaign targeting high sensation seeking adolescents. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 27, 175–195.doi: 10.1080/00909889909365535
Tanner Jr, J. F., Hunt, J. B., & Eppright, D. R. (1991). The protection motivation model: A normative model of fear appeals. Journal of Marketing, 55(3), 36-45.doi: 10.1177/002224299105500304
Taylor, C. (1991). The ethics of authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Van Esch, P., Cui, Y., & Jain, S. P. (2021). COVID-19 Charity Advertising: Identifiable Victim Message Framing, Self-Construal, and Donation Intent. Journal of Advertising, 1-9.doi: 10.1080/00913367.2021.1927911
Verlegh, P. W., Bernritter, S. F., Gruber, V., Schartman, N., & Sotgiu, F. (2021). “Don’t Worry, We Are Here for You”: Brands as External Source of Control during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Journal of Advertising, 50(3), 262-270.doi: 10.1080/00913367.2021.1927913
Walumbwa, F. O., Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Wernsing, T. S., & Peterson, S. J. (2008). Authentic leadership: Development and validation of a theory-based measure. Journal of Management, 34, 89–126.doi: 10.1177/0149206307308913
Witte, K., & Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. Health Education & Behavior, 27(5), 591-615.doi: 10.1177/109019810002700506
Yoon, H. J., & Tinkham, S. F. (2013). Humorous threat persuasion in advertising: The effects of humor, threat intensity, and issue involvement. Journal of Advertising, 42(1), 30-41.
Yoon, H.J., & Mayer, J.M. (2014). Do humour and threat work well together? The moderating effect of need for cognition in humorous threat persuasion advertisements. International Journal of Advertising, 33(4), 725-740.doi: 10.2501/IJA-33-4-725-740
Zhang, Y. (1996). Responses to humorous advertising: The moderating effect of need for cognition. Journal of Advertising, 25(1), 15-32.doi: 10.2307/23353247
Zuckerman, M. (1994). Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. Cambridge university press.
Zuckerman, M. (2005). Faites vos jeux anouveau: Still another look at sensation seeking and pathological gambling. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(2), 361-365.doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.01.012