Fear Appeal in Advertising


Name the Monster

 The prescription rate for anxiety medication is at an all-time high. People are overstressed and living in a state of tension (perhaps even paranoia) has become the new normal. Most concerns are self-invented, ‘what if’ scenarios that fortunately will never come to fruition. Mark Twain famously said, “I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

The imagination, however, is wild, and advertisers know it. Their use of fear appeal, is effective because it scares people into remedial or preventative action. Campaigns are developed to intentionally play on or even fabricate cause for concern. Then, consumers buy-in to curing or avoiding the dreaded repercussions.

When a fear is given a name, it exponentially increases its authenticity and power. Bad breath wasn’t invented by Listerine, but the term Halitosis sure was. They created a memorable, medicinal-sounding name for something no one wants; and it just so happened Listerine had the solution for it.

A company can even concoct a fear or condition to target a perceived vulnerability. A person’s home or car stinks and they just don't realize it. How embarrassing for them and unpleasant for their guests. But they should take comfort that it's not their fault. According to Procter & Gamble's genius campaign, they've just become 'noseblind'. Febreze to the rescue.

Alternatively, instead of titling the fear, a brand can name the solution. The breath mint Certs invented Retsyn. A pharmaceuticalesque label for the halitosis combating mixture that produces the green flecks in their product. Nasty tooth decay can be painful, unsightly, and expensive to correct. Crest came up with Fluoristan (stannous fluoride) and Colgate invented Gardol. A clever, catchy moniker for sodium lauroyl sarcosinate, that inspires consumers to need it and ‘guard all’ their teeth.

Fear appeal is effective in advertising because it speaks to mass amounts of people and makes everyone equal. Human beings are the same when it comes to evading consequences; self-preservation and protection are instinctual. Our information overloaded, hypervigilant society makes for an ideal breeding ground for scare tactics to morph into persuasive marketing strategies - and for new monsters to start lurking in the light.


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Morty Silber, CEO

Mad Strategies Inc.
a Wizard of Ads Partner

The Guilt Trip


Influencing through Negative Emotions

Brene Brown once said, "Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It's the fear that we're not good enough." In our society of ever-present comparison, we continuously self-evaluate against, well, everyone else. This exposure breeds a feeling of inadequacy for consumers while creating an opportunity for brands to shine as the solution.

A negative emotion is a sharp marketing weapon. The difference being that, unlike love, let’s say, it isn’t something we’re seeking to find and attain – it’s something we want to avoid and eliminate. DaHee Han writes on Marketing Tech News. "Marketers can manipulate shame and guilt in their strategies into a positive outcome by pairing those emotions with the appropriate messages."

Think of all the commercials for feeding children in third-world countries. They always show kids, in impoverished, tragic circumstances. The viewer feels pity for the terrible situation, guilt for their own much better life, and shame for not helping. Not a positive feeling in sight. Unless they picked up their phones and donated. Needless to say, it’s effective.

Another big pressure point is health, perhaps more specifically, weight. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that 2 out of 3 North Americans are overweight and most of them would rather not be. Companies are quick to market their products as the easy cure and everyone loves the prospect of a fast fix. Even better if it comes with guilt-free delicious pleasure and hardly tastes like a sacrifice.   

The ad above used guilt appeal to persuade consumers. And Pretzel Crisps stated in their 2010 campaign that they "Tastes as good as skinny feels", and that "You can never be too thin". Similarly, a friend of mine just launched a new product line called Skinny Dippin’. In addition to the genius double entendre in the name, you feel like you’ll slim down while eating it.


In advertising, all emotions are fair-game. Encouraging an audience to donate to a worthy cause, or inspiring them to make better nutritional decisions that may lead them to live a healthier life are noble end-games. But play the shame and guilt cards with caution.

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Morty Silber, CEO

Mad Strategies Inc.
a Wizard of Ads Partner

Snackable Morsels


Why Lists Work

It’s human nature to look for proof and reassurance. We want information, but don’t want to exert too much effort in obtaining it. The use of statistics in marketing facilitates both goals. Bite-sized chunks of data can be quickly processed and absorbed by consumers, to motivate and justify an opinion or action. Statistics do the discovery work and thinking process for us. Also, they cut right to the chase.

From a company’s perspective, it enables them to support claims. By presenting statistics, they’re demonstrating that they’ve done the research for consumers and have the evidence to prove their case. If 9/10 people found x-product better than y-product, there must be a reason that x-product is the preferred choice.

Of course, statistics can be skewed and frequently are. Results can be manipulated to exemplify just about anything and support any argument. A quick Google search on ads by toothpaste companies will show that most brands state that 80-90% of the Dentists would recommend their products over those of their competitors. Each company has analytically manipulated their figures because, well, it’s simply numerically impossible for them all to be true.

One technique is to stage the messaging in a listicle format. Our era operates on a fast-food information diet and list marketing satisfies our cerebral taste buds. In a piece for Fast Company, Jane Porter states, "Lists are soothing. They’re simple. They provide instant gratification and purpose...Lists gel well with the brain’s cognitive penchant for categorization. They minimize choice and make it easy to process data."

Presenting key messaging points in a spatially-organized fashion is appealing to advertisers who aim to scale their material, and to consumers who want the information delivered in snackable morsels - but expect it to be simultaneously filling none the less. Maria Konnikova writes in an article for The New Yorker, "In the current media environment, a list is perfectly designed for our brain. We are drawn to it intuitively, we process it more efficiently, and we retain it with little effort."  

Online, lists are considered click-bait. Advertisers exploit the curiosity of its audience by luring them in with the promise of succinct revelations of grandeur. Lists are magnets that lead to high traffic and a low bounce rate. People get drawn in and want to find out how it ends. And capturing and maintaining that attention is unquestionably the bridge to the sale.

Marketers have a responsibility to ensure that content is curated effectively. Brevity is the currency of modern times. Using statistics (the authentic kind), and stacking information in a list, are persuasive tools that increase marketing success. That's why we use Brandable Chunks. But I've already written about that.


Morty Silber, CEO

Mad Strategies Inc.
a Wizard of Ads Partner

Trash Talk

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The Art of Putting Down the Competition

Manning vs Brady. Gore vs Bush. Seinfeld vs Newman. People love a good rivalry. Be it athletic, political or otherwise, we want to anchor ourselves to a side. Preferably the winning one.

This competitive desire is often exploited in advertising. Known as Challenger Brands, companies create or fuel rivalries between themselves and their mightier, more established opponents. Whether transparent or opaque, the pursuant battle can get downright nasty.

Paul Suggett writes in an article for The Balance, "Over the years, many great challenger brands (Avis, Pepsi, VW, Dockers, Virgin Atlantic) have taken on the big brand leaders (Hertz, Coke, Ford, Haggar, British Airways) and they have all been very, very successful with this strategy. The reason for their success is clear. Even if the challenger brand doesn't have the money or power to go head to head in an ad campaign for a long period of time, it does have the ability to start a fight. And when the big brand accepts the challenge, the strategy pays off, big time."

But this tactic should be approached with caution - badmouthing can backfire. It can seem like weakness and fear. Also, it can come off as insulting to prospective consumers by attacking prior decisions they may have made. Plus, no one likes arrogance and boasting – it’s amateurish and feels like compensation for a lack of confidence. (Especially from a new player.) As the saying goes, “Act like you’ve been there before.”

Pepsi did this beautifully in this ad. It was humorous and did not come across as arrogant.

A company can tarnish the luster off their competitor the right way. Sure, it's critical for a brand to distinguish itself. Part of that must be clearly defining what makes them different in the marketplace, and more importantly, better than ‘the other guy’. However, instead of shining a negative light on what their rival does wrong, it needs to spin the message by emphasizing what, in comparison, they are doing right.

Competition is healthy and ferments emotion. A company that positions itself as the scrappy underdog can rally both interest and support. A little salty talk builds drama and engagement. It also forces all contenders to step their game up once that gauntlet has been thrown.

Morty Silber, CEO

Mad Strategies Inc.
a Wizard of Ads Partner