Abstract: Harnessing Anger to Persuade: Combining Offense/Anger Appeals with Retributive Efficacy Appeals to Increase Policy Support

◆ Christofer Skurka, Penn State University

For decades, health communicators have designed threat/fear appeals with efficacy cues that emphasize how message recipients can protect themselves from the depicted health threat (Mongeau, 2013). This strategy follows naturally from emotion theory, given that fear motivates protection-related outcomes (Lazarus, 1991). Until now, health communicators have ignored whether persuasive appeals to other emotions (like anger) might benefit from tailoring efficacy cues to match the motivational goal for those emotions (Dillard & Nabi, 2006). This investigation marks an important step forward in this regard. Specifically, it was predicted that the persuasive effects of a message that appeals to anger (termed an offense component) would be enhanced if it is followed by a message that emphasizes how taking action will effectively punish the wrongdoer (retributive efficacy component). This study also examined whether initial attitudes toward the topic would moderate the effects of these messages, as theorizing on persuasion and anger would suggest (Turner, 2007).
Participants were recruited through Qualtrics Panels for a two-wave study. At baseline, participants (N = 1760) reported their initial attitudes toward the issue (industry regulation). Two weeks later, returning participants (N = 717) were randomly assigned to one of two health-relevant contexts (childhood obesity vs. climate change). Within each context, the experiment followed a 2 (offense component: high vs. low) × 2 (retributive efficacy component: high vs. low) + 1 (offset control) between-subjects design. The offense messages manipulated the extent to which [soda/fossil fuel] companies were described as having [targeted young people with exploitative marketing for their sugary products/misled the public about the risks their actions pose for climate change]. The efficacy messages identified several solutions to address [childhood obesity/climate change] with the high retribution versions also conveying how these solutions would hold big corporations accountable for their actions.
Contrary to expectations, communicating retributive efficacy did not strengthen the effectiveness of the offense appeal. This was because the retribution cues provoked defensive responses. Relative to the low retributive efficacy messages, the high versions were more likely to be counterargued, were perceived as making weaker arguments, and produced greater levels of anger toward the message source. Moreover, moderation analyses indicated that retributive efficacy messaging may polarize audiences who hold the most extreme initial attitudes. Compared to control, the high offense/high retribution message increased support for public policies among pro-attitudinal participants but decreased support among counter-attitudinal participants. Unexpectedly, the high offense/low retribution message (which focused exclusively on how the proposed solutions would tackle [childhood obesity/climate change] and did not include retribution language) promoted policy support (vs. control) regardless of participants’ initial attitudes.
These findings suggest that health and environmental communicators should be cautious when using punishment-focused messaging as it may prompt defensive reactions and divide audiences who are favorable and unfavorable toward the message’s position. Additionally, these results suggest it is possible for an appeal to anger to persuade counter-attitudinal groups—that is, so long as it provides general efficacy cues instead of retribution-focused cues, which (as discussed) may rub audiences the wrong way.