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Which Health Messages Work Best? Experts Prefer Fear- or Loss-Related Messages, but the Public Follows Positive, Gain-Related Messages

      Objective

      Is it more effective to be positive or negative? Many of the most vivid public health appeals have been negative – “Smoking Kills” or “Drive, Drive, and Die” – but are these negative messages effective when it comes to nutrition and changing eating behavior?

      Design, Setting and Participants

      In this quantitative meta-analysis of 43 published studies involving either fear appeals or negative, loss-related messages or positive, gain-related messages. In contrast past research, a wide range of over 1000 participants were coded, segmented, and analyzed based on audience characteristics.

      Outcome Measures and Analysis

      The main dependent variable of interest was how effective a nutrition-related message was on changing behavioral intentions or actual behavior. Messages were coded as effective or ineffective and a logistic regression was conducted against the characteristics of message (positive versus negative) and four characteristics of the target group of the message.

      Results

      Negative, fear- or loss-related messages tended to work best with people who were highly involved with the issue, highly knowledgeable about the issue and who had a low preference for risk, and a piece-meal style of processing messages (vs wholistic or “big picture”).

      Conclusions and Implications

      Experts – including health and nutrition professionals – tend to prefer negative messages (“Candy will make you fat”) whereas much of the general public tend to respond best to positive message (“Fruit will make you slim”). The reason that negative, loss-related messages are so common may be because they are designed by experts.

      Funding

      Cornell Food and Brand Lab.