October 31, 2017
Scaring up an emotional response
with Fear Marketing
Communications professionals, like you, know that emotions trigger actions: sales, donations, clicks. 

But what about fear? In the spirit of the day, we wanted to dive into Fear Marketing. Fear Marketing entails a four-step process.

Step 1: establish that your audience faces a threat
Step 2: inform your audience that since they’re facing a threat, they should take some action
Step 3: introduce the specific action they should take in order to protect themselves
Step 4: motivate them to take the action

Simple enough. But does it work? Yes. When done right.

spiderResearch shows that Fear Marketing works best when the audience truly believes they can protect themselves from the potential threat. If the threat feels too overwhelming, they won’t take action. But if the threat is real, and if the action matches the threat and could genuinely reduce the risk, Fear Marketing is extremely effective.  (That’s a lot of words to say: BS won’t work! It usually doesn’t.)

Brands that deal with real life or death issues—like insurance and healthcare—have an advantage here. For example, check out this ad designed to scare people off cigarettes. Effective? Yes. Why? Because it’s believable (the stat helps) and because the action it suggests (not smoking) is something most of us feel is within our control and believe to be related to the fear.

It doesn’t have to be a life or death issue to be effective. Fear Marketing works for brands that sell shoes or candybars too. FOMO, for example, is a common fear, which is why “last chance” messages work. This Rue La La ad plays on fears of missing out explicitly…and effectively. Sure, the danger is less dramatic, but it's no less real and the action is appropriately aligned to the fear.

spiderIt works, because it’s believable.

But there’s more to fear about Fear Marketing than just the risk of being disingenuous. Beware too of overusing fear in your marketing efforts. That's a little like getting a bucket full of old-fashioned candy corn in your trick-or-treat bag. Fear works best when it’s scattered throughout, like sea salt in chocolate. Yum!

Attempts to manufacture the fear usually fall flat. For example, this ad might overdo it, suggesting that if you’re not using this soap brand, your baby will be covered in creepy-crawlies (and not the fun-filled costume types).

Their tag line reads: "If you aren't totally clean, you are filthy."

Yes the action – buying the soap – is a reasonable ask. But do we really believe not doing so will result in babies haunted with bugs? No. Most of us probably don’t see the threat and the act as a good match, which makes this a less effective example.

spiderSo what’s the upshot? Fear is a powerful human emotion. And like other emotions, can be played by communication pros in an effort to trigger actions. But like all marketing efforts, it works best when you’re honest and realistic. And boo-tiful visuals, as always, work best.
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Q: Why didnŐt the skeleton like the Halloween candy?

A: He didnŐt have the stomach for it.
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