Along with information and entertainment, persuasion is one of the main purposes of mass communications. It means that messages conveyed via mass media may be aimed at having people adopt different attitudes or change their current behaviors. Rational persuasion appeals to reasoning and provides arguments. However, there are other persuasion tools, and a major one is an emotional appeal. Bypassing reasoning, it affects a person’s emotional state, which is seen as a more profound and a stronger driving force for behaviors than rationality (Perloff, 2010). The analysis of emotional appeal requires a more substantial effort than the analysis of arguments because the emotional appeal is more subtle. It can be said that an argument is persuasive because it is coherent and presents factual data while estimating the persuasiveness of emotional appeal is more challenging because it requires certain psychological knowledge. An ad that employed emotional appeal was a 2008 poster by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) depicting a man who is mutating into a fish. The ad appeared as part of a global climate change awareness campaign. Upon reviewing this add, the persuasion tools employed in it can be examined from the psychological perspective.
Ad Campaign Background
In 2008, the narratives of environment protection and climate change were trending in the world, i.e. appearing in mass media with higher frequency and intensiveness, due to the United States presidential election campaign of Barack Obama, whose political platform included environmental issues as a significant part (Houser, 2016). As the public attention to the topics of climate change was growing globally, the WWF published an ad that eventually became well-known—the “Fishman” ad. It is a poster depicting a man in a teal blue shirt, and his head has mutated to resemble that of a fish (“WWF: Fish,” 2008). It is written on the poster, “Stop climate change before it changes you.” The ad was created by an advertising agency in Antwerp, Belgium, named Germaine; photo credits were given to a Belgian photographer Christophe Gilbert. According to a statement by the WWF, the goal of creating the poster was to attract the attention of people and have them examine the variety of climate change issues discussed by the Fund (“Climate Campaign,” 2009). Upon seeing the poster, a person was supposed to develop a strong emotional response and thus become more interested in looking up what the WWF has to propose in terms of reducing the negative effects of climate change. Particularly, the organization had a number of solutions to reduce CO2 emissions, and the theme of their campaign was that everyone could do it in their everyday life; otherwise, everyone would be adversely affected.
Concerning public feedback to the ad, the WWF did not publish any data on the effectiveness, which could have been measured by counting the people who reacted to it, i.e. followed the ad and visited the Fund’s website to familiarize themselves with the climate change initiatives discussed there, or, further, by counting the people who ultimately changed their attitudes and behaviors due to seeing the ad. In fact, both indicators are hard to measure, but what can be said with more clarity is that many people who saw the ad were not emotionally indifferent to it, and indifference would have been a failure for an ad aimed at an emotional response. The Fishman ad’s discussion on a popular website that collects remarkable examples of ad campaigns features such words as “disgusting” and “horrible” (“WWF: Fish,” 2008), which can be attributed both to the ad itself and the message it was striving to deliver.
The addressed ad can be examined from the perspective of the psychology of fear and guilt. Fear appeal is defined by Perloff (2010) as “a persuasive communication that tries to scare people into changing their attitudes by conjuring up negative consequences that will occur if they do not comply with the message recommendations” (p. 196). It should be stressed that fear is one of the strongest and most ancient emotions for humans because it is an essential feature that animals need in order to avoid threats and increase the chances of survival. What is meant by a strong emotion is that it is highly capable of changing one’s behaviors? In this context, the picture of the Fishman is appealing because it deals with an image of the human body. Universally, i.e. across cultures, people are evolutionally predisposed to be attracted to those who display good health, which is why images of healthy people provoke positive emotions, while images of mutations are repelling and provoke disgust. Disgust is linked to fear in the WWF’s ad in a sense that fear-driven behaviors are aimed at avoiding frightening consequences, and the Fishman represents a frightening consequence of climate change.
It should also be noted how the ad plays with the word “change.” It is implied that, by changing the nature around them, i.e. causing a greater impact than that nature can take up, people ultimately change themselves because their organisms will need to adjust to the changing conditions. Houser (2016) notes that the WWF took the word “change” and “revised [its] connotations to include devastation and unsettling alterations to the essence of life” (p 117). The use of the second person, i.e. “before it changes you” instead of “before it changes human beings” or “before it changes people,” is meant to be a more personal appeal. Although it is expected that a member of the audience understands that mutations potentially caused by climate change cannot occur during his or her lifetime because genetic changes are a matter of many generations, it is still suggested that the change can occur very quickly because of climate change is rather fast.
An important aspect of the ad’s persuasiveness is the facial expression of the Fishman. Still preserving some features of a human face (since it is rather challenging to talk about the facial expression of a fish), the Fishman’s face expresses tiredness and misery. Seemingly covered in slime, the face is turned upward, and the Fishman is looking somewhere with his big moist eyes that give the impression that tears are welling in them. The message is that the Fishman is not happy in the hypothetical future in which he lives; quite the opposite, he is miserable in his mutated state that is caused by the unreasonable behaviors of previous generations in terms of the ways in which they treated nature.
Therefore, the ad relies not only on fear appeal but also guilt appeal. Guilt occurs when a person realizes that he or she has been behaving in a way in which he or she should not have been behaving, i.e. it is a moral category associated with a person’s ethics or perceived norms of behavioral patterns and virtues (Basil, Ridgway, & Basil, 2008). As a persuasion tool, guilt appeal is widely used in climate change awareness campaigns because the context is highly favorable for the use of such a tool. Houser (2016) notes that environmental rhetoric and activism largely rely on emotional, moral, ethical, and esthetic premises more than it does on scientific ones. Although there is a way of talking about climate change in terms of the actual impact caused by human activities and technologies and in terms of measuring this impact, climate change campaigns more often resort to a different style of communication, as they stress that humans should feel guilty for their greed toward natural resources and their neglect toward nature. The expected response to this appeal in a person is the desire to do something to stop climate change (Starliper, 2012), as the feeling of personal responsibility for the adverse effects is imposed on the viewer.
The Fishman ad by the WWF is an example of an emotional appeal that uses fear and guilt as potential driving forces that can make people change their attitudes and behaviors. The image of a mutated human body is aimed at frightening the viewer, while the message of personal responsibility for the consequences of climate change is expected to provoke guilt. The use of fear appeal and guilt appeal in advertising campaigns may be seen as somewhat risky because those are negative emotions, and some viewers may subsequently develop negative attitudes toward the subject of a campaign that uses such appeals or to the organization that conducts the campaign. However, these appeals can also be highly effective because they affect profound layers of human perception.
Basil, D. Z., Ridgway, N. M., & Basil, M. D. (2008). Guilt and giving: A process model of empathy and efficacy. Psychology & Marketing, 25(1), 1-23.
Climate Campaign. (2009). Web.
Houser, H. (2016). Ecosickness in contemporary U.S. fiction: Environment and affect. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Perloff, R. M. (2010). The dynamics of persuasion: Communication and attitudes in the 21st century (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Starliper, D. (2012). Fishman: Ethos and pathos. Web.
WWF: Fish. (2008). Web.
This research paper on World Wildlife Fund’s “Fish” Poster and Effects