fear in advertising Is playing on people's fears a good practice in advertising? Some might say it's one of the best ways to motivate people. Others might argue that it's one of the only ways. Both would be correct. The problem is that a lot of advertisers go about it the wrong way.

Yes, fear is indeed the great motivator. The question is: How does fear motivate? What makes it such a powerful emotion? And, what are the best ways to use fear as an advertising strategy?

To understand exactly how fear motivates people, it helps to take a look "under the hood" and see exactly what's going on when we experience fear.

Fear Is as Fear Does

According to the experts, your brain uses two processes to create fear. One process is completely involuntary — like when someone jumps out of the shadows and startles you. You get goose bumps, your heart rate goes up, you get a spike of adrenaline … and you might even pee your pants. This is one kind of fear.

Another kind of fear comes from a process that involves actual thought. This type of fear analyzes input and compares it with other incoming data, such as sights and sounds, as well as memories of similar events. When you experience this type of fear, we call it something else — curiosity.

Strange as it may sound, as far as your brain is concerned, curiosity and fear are the same. Fear has many names — you've probably heard of them: uncertainty, confusion, curiosity, embarrassment, shyness, anger, anticipation, anxiety, ambivalence, hate and even arousal.

Fear is a defense mechanism, plain and simple. And because the No. 1 goal of that gray matter in between your ears is to keep you alive, just about everything you do is born out of fear itself or the need to minimize the potential to experience fear. Fear keeps you alive. That's what makes it so powerful.

Fear as an Advertising Strategy

Excessive ambiguity can cause anxiety. Too much predictability can cause ambivalence. A small dose of the unexpected, however, can be appropriately arousing.

As you may well know, emotions arise from the subconscious. Which means we don't get to choose which emotions we are going to experience from one minute to the next. Based on what neurologists have discovered, there's a 50/50 chance that all your actions are a reaction to one of two things — a perceived threat or a perceived reward. Recently, researchers have documented threat responses as more intense and longer lasting than reward responses.

Fear is the result of a perceived threat, which we respond to in one of two ways: fight or flight. The key to using fear as an advertising strategy is to avoid intense threats that activate the flight response and instead focus on mild threats that activate the fight response.

One example of how to do this with a simple headline comes from a Delta Airlines poster promoting on-board WiFi that reads, "Direct flights have never had this many connections." An immediate conflict exists between the concept of "direct flight" and "connections." This conflict triggers a mild threat response that causes the brain to slip into problem-solving mode. The need for certainty and clarity pieces together the puzzle and forms an emotional connection once the conflict is resolved. The audience's brain does the work, and both the audience and the brand benefit.

Another slightly more complex example of advertising that activates a mild threat response comes to us in the form of a digital campaign by an IT company promoting cloud services. The campaign compares cloud computing to a zombie apocalypse. Both of which are scenarios for which few people are well-prepared. More importantly, the parallels between the two concepts are not immediately obvious. This creates a gap large enough to create some uncertainty (threat) in the mind yet small enough to seem "fillable" (fight) within a short period of time.

The right advertising message in the right context at the exact right time has the power to elicit emotional responses far beyond the audience's ability to control them. Tease your audience with just enough information to have them take notice, lean in and take the next step with little to no risk (fight). Be careful, though. Too much obscurity can lead to inaction. People tend not to act (flight) on vague information.

Handle with Care

Evoking fear in people is a tricky business. If done right, it can be rewarding for everyone involved. So before you launch your next fear-based campaign, run it through the checklist below.

  • Is the idea too predictable or abrupt? Remember: Your goal is to activate a mild threat response that activates a subtle fight response. To do this, there must be conflict or an element of mystery in your idea — just not too much of it.
  • Is there room in your idea for additional thought? Some of the most engaging content and messaging invite the audience to contribute in some way, either in their own mind or physically.
  • Is the idea too simple? Oversimplification or being too literal makes for material that is easily overlooked. Simplify as much as necessary. Over-complicating and over-simplifying can lead to the same disappointing results.

In advertising, fear can work for you or against you. How you call upon it will determine whether it is friend or foe.

Originally published Nov 11, 2013 12:00:00 AM, updated June 28 2019