Emotions are an easily manipulated part of human nature. Marketers frequently use emotional marketing to establish a connection between the consumer and the advertised product or service. One of the most commonly exploited emotions in marketing is fear. Fear is effective because it empowers people to change their behaviors, and decades of research reveals fear-inducing advertising is more memorable than positive advertisements or those lacking an emotional response. Simply inciting fear, though, can lead to unforeseen marketing challenges. Several variables predict whether fear works to change consumer behavior, and understanding these factors can help you create an effective marketing campaign.
Consumer Association with Product or Service
If a person doesn’t believe they are vulnerable to the fear you’re selling, they are less likely to change their behavior. For example, if you’re a company that sells shoe insoles, people under the age of 30 or 40 might not feel this product is relevant to them. That means that if you produce an ad outlining the dangers of hammertoes or bunions, these people won’t pay attention because they think insoles are for older individuals or people with foot problems.
To make a fear-inducing ad effective, you must relate the product to all consumers and demonstrate why that person should pay attention. In this case, you might include statistics about who experiences foot problems and why shoe support is necessary to avoid them. Or, you may demonstrate the severity of foot issues while educating people that poor support early on will result in these problems later in life.
This may be the most critical predictor of whether your fear ad will succeed or fail. If your ad does not produce enough fear in the consumer, they will likely ignore the importance of your product or service. However, if your ad evokes too much fear in the consumer, they are likely to employ defense mechanisms to avoid the fear-causing advertisement rather than focus on your message. For example, an ad for a weight loss program might use fear to suggest the typical American diet causes heart attacks. This notion is very relatable for most Americans, and the fear of an impending heart attach may cause too much anxiety. This results in the person trying to distance themselves from your ad by claiming they eat healthier than they do or that heart attacks only happen to people who are obese or elderly.
Though it seems counter-intuitive, humor can bypass these problems by lessening the impact of the fear. One research article revealed “results support the idea that playfulness of humor provides a safe context for the audience, within which they can elaborate on the threatening message and acknowledge their personal vulnerability to the threat” (Mukherjee & Dube, 2012, p. 154).
Satire is especially effective, as it demonstrates the irony of a situation and allows consumers to stay engaged in the message. This reduces the likelihood a consumer will use a defense mechanism to avoid the fear, and increases the chances they will heed the underlying message.
An excellent example of this is demonstrated by a British PSA about smoking. A carpet installer has just finished his work and goes to have a smoke, but realizes he accidentally carpeted over his pack of cigarettes. In his embarrassment, he stomps down on the pack trying to hide his mistake. Shortly after, the homeowner walks in saying “I found this pack of cigarettes on the counter, they must be yours.” Before the carpet installer can figure what happened, a young girl shows up asking if anyone has seen her pet hamster. The camera pans to the blood-stained lump in the carpet where the message “Smoking Kills” appears. The commercial invokes a morbid fear of smoking, but presents it in a humorous manner that keeps the consumer engaged and imparts a sense of severity concerning the overall message.
How to Use Fear Marketing
Many marketers mistakenly assume fear-evoking advertising is useful only for political campaigns or PSAs. Fear has proven effective in eliciting avoidance behavior for these parties, but fear can also be used to encourage people to buy a product or service. For example, by demonstrating to consumers that something is a trending product, marketers can suggest that not using that product will result in social rejection. People are inherently drawn to trending products because they want to feel included. Social acceptability in marketing dictates a wide range of consumer behaviors such as the type of vehicle, clothing, food, or technology someone will purchase. Apple’s marketing strategies are exceedingly effective at promoting social acceptability and suggesting to consumers that buying anything other than Apple will result in social rejection.
In a similar vein, marketers can imply that failing to use a certain product or service will result in a Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). You may have heard this term used by teens and young adults to express a fear that not buying into a trend will result in later regret that they missed an important life experience. Most ads incite this fear by claiming there is a limited supply of a product or service and a consumer must “jump” at the opportunity to avoid missing out. Apple has also used this tactic to suggest certain iPhones are in short supply, only to later reveal they had enough to fill consumer demand. Even though Apple lied outright, consumers who thought they had missed out on their opportunity were thrilled to be given a second chance to purchase the trending product.
Why Does Fear Marketing Work?
Humans are designed to fear harmful things. Our ancestors developed a fear response to predatory animals as a means of self-defense. Though our protection is not threatened by lions or bears today, people show the same fear reaction to guns, bombs, and knives suggesting people can learn to fear anything. Public health campaigns rely on this innate fear response to develop “scare tactics” aimed at reducing unhealthy consumer behaviors like smoking. Politicians also make use of fear to reduce votes for opposing political candidates by suggesting these individuals are unfit to lead.
Today, the most relevant thing people fear is social rejection. To survive, our ancestors relied on social interaction and cooperation and this innate response has persisted to modern times. People need to be included, and when they are not, they develop anxiety and other maladaptive behaviors. Thus, we fear social rejection because being rejected can result in unpleasant feelings. Marketers can use this fear to make consumers believe a product or service will make them more accepted, ultimately relieving fear of rejection and pushing sales.
Mukherjee, A., & Dube, L. (2012). Mixing emotions: The use of humor in fear advertising. Journal of Consumer Behavior, 11(2), 147-161.