Using Fear Messages and Scare Tactics in Substance Abuse Prevention Efforts

SAMHSA’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies, 2015

Scare tactics—dramatized messaging designed to shock and frighten—were one of the earliest strategies employed to reduce substance use among youth. This strategy, often featuring horror stories, gruesome images, and graphic messaging intended to elicit fear, initially gained popularity as a response to the drug culture of the 1960’s. Though used widely since, studies prove scare tactics ineffective in substance abuse prevention.

This document summarizes peer-reviewed research published between 1993 and 2014 on the use of scare tactics and fear messages in health communications to prevent substance abuse. It offers state and community-level prevention planners interested in developing health communications campaigns relevant and timely information on the effectiveness of these approaches, and factors to consider when implementing such efforts.

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