The Four-Letter Word in Advertising: Fear
Filed under: Marketing
January 1, 2015
The scene begins with a mom at the park with her two kids - a little boy named Kevin and a baby in a stroller. The mother turns her head a few seconds to tend to the baby, then turns back to find Kevin has disappeared.
Panicked, the woman shouts "Kevin" as she starts searching for her young son. She grabs her bag, empties its contents and picks up a child locator device that ultimately guides her to Kevin. The boy is walking happily down a field with a red balloon in hand.
This scene - which at first has the makings of a horror film - comes from a television commercial for batteries. The ad dramatically shows how a potentially awful situation can be avoided with the help of a child locator device and the batteries that make it work.
Whether it is a child wandering out of his mother's sight, a crash test dummy hitting a dashboard at 60 miles per hour, or a frying egg representing a brain damaged by drug use, scare tactics have been used in ads and public service announcements for decades. And today, consumers are bombarded with ads for products offering protection from fears ranging from the H1N1 virus (swine flu) to embarrassing body odor.
The reason fear appeals are used in advertising is simple, says Todd Van Slyke, an advertising instructor at The Illinois Institute of Art - Schaumburg. Just as sex sells, fear sells too.
"Fear appeals strike a nerve with people who have doubts about things or do not know about things," he explains. "They play on our inherent fears of the unknown or that something is going to kill us. This is why scare tactics are stunningly effective."
According to Harjot Singh, the senior vice president, director of planning at marketing communications firm Grey Canada, advertising is so persuasive that it can change how people think and behave. Fear is effective in advertising because it is a familiar sensation that causes people to respond quickly, Singh says.
"As humans, we are familiar with fear starting when we are young - whether it is fear of parents, school, government, the law," Singh states. "There are a lot of familiars out there that tell us to change the way we think and act, or else."
"Advertisers do things that are effective. When they are no longer effective, they stop using them," Van Slyke adds. "Scare tactics are not a fad and not going to suddenly disappear. As long as they keep driving customers, orders, and visits to the doctor in sufficient numbers, they will continue."
While fear appeals can pull at our heartstrings and motivate us to buy a product or service, they can also cause negative reactions, experts say.
"Fear may cause people to stop and think momentarily, but in the long run, it may just cause frustration and actually have the opposite effect of what you had hoped for," warns Jennifer Perkins, director of ethnography/consumer insights at Smith Brothers Agency, a marketing agency in Pittsburgh.
Advertisers who are trying to emotionally connect with consumers by using fear must be careful they don't go too far. Sometimes fear is an effective way to motivate consumers and other times it is not. It depends on the product and the approach, Perkins says.
"Fear appeals, such as those alerting people to the dangers of drunk driving or depletion of natural resources, could be effective," she offers. "In these instances, the public good and the advertiser's interests are congruent."
Singh agrees, adding that advertisers need to also consider their audience before using scare tactics. "If you are talking to young people, they are high-sensation seekers, so you need to present a message to them that is in line with that mental makeup," he says. "If the ad is telling teens not to smoke or do drugs, you may need shock value to create a sense of urgency with young people who are not yet in touch with their immortality. But you have to use fear responsibly."
Ethical questions arise when advertisers employ excessive amounts of fear, for example through graphic depictions of consequences, Perkins says. For example, baby food companies never need to say "expired baby food can kill your child" when saying "remember to check the expiration date on your baby's food" gets the message across just fine.
In some cases, advertisers can take an approach that is more positive than using fear.
"What works better is to be supportive and help the consumer to find a way to conquer their challenges, not make them feel they are doing something wrong," Perkins offers. "For example, ads for prescription medicine portray people in hopeless situations and then they provide a solution (the medicine) for their troubles. It sets up a possible problem, not fear, and offers a way to address it."
Depending on the product or service, fear can be a highly effective marketing tool. But as Van Slyke advises, advertisers do need to think carefully before using it.
"Ask yourself, ‘is this kind of a message I want associated with my company and product? ' " he says. "Do you want to be recognized for scaring people?" If not, consider other ways you can present your message."
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