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  • Writer's pictureKanhaiya Maheshwary

What is Fear-based marketing, and does it work in today’s times?

I’ve written a considerable amount on how consumer behavior affects buying. Humans are mostly emotional beings who try to think that they are rationalizing their decisions. However, our primitive brain, which is responsible for 90% of our decisions sub-consciously, still works on the ancient concept of fight-or-flight. And since emotions impact so much of a customer’s purchase decisions, marketers often try to employ a variety of different emotional appeals. In fact, a research by HubSpot claims that ads with emotional appeal work 2X better as compared to ads with just rational appeal.

Here are some of the most popular emotional appeals you will notice in ads and marketing campaigns –

1. Humor appeal – Using jokes and humorous stories to lighten up the mood and build affinity.

2. Sexual appeal – Most commonly employed by brands advertising adult products, and in many cases deodorants.

3. Romantic appeal – Noticed frequently in jewelry ads wherein one of the couples gifts the other something or asks them out. It can be found in chocolate ads too, like Dairy Milk. Also, romantic appeal needn’t necessarily be between couples – it can simply be anything that’s overwhelmingly emotional.

4. Scarcity appeal – This is what today’s generation nicknames #FOMO, or the fear of missing out. Scarcity appeal can usually be found in ads that promote limited time sales and financial incentive offers.

5. Fear appeal – This is what we are going to discuss in today’s blog, so read on.

Fear appeal plays on some of our worst insecurities. That’s why despite only a quarter of Americans suffering from bad breath, over 70% used Listerine. That’s 120 million more people than should have. It’s simply because over the years, Listerine has successfully managed to create a fearful impression that bad breath makes you a social outcaste. In fact, it all started back in the day when Listerine created a print ad which showed a pretty girl losing her guy to another girl because of apparently having bad breath. Such detachment is one of the worst fears of us humans, and therefore Listerine managed to increase its sales massively in a trend which continues till date.

Let’s have a look at how fear appeal is commonly employed in the following industries:

Computers and IT

One of the biggest fears of daily computer / laptop users at a consumer level and people like CTO / CIO at a business level is data and identify theft. Anti-virus and Cyber-Security providers try to cash in on this fear in order to sell their products.

Insurance and Financial Products

There are different types of losses involved in the realm of insurance. There can be loss of money due to the lack of insurance. And there can be loss of life, which requires a person to have an insurance for securing their family after they are gone. And insurance companies know how to pull these strings perfectly by creating a situation in which the entire family is involved and impacted.

Cosmetics Industry

Humans are so obsessed with their looks that an entire industry has formed to profit from it. We know it as the cosmetics industry, and it includes everything right from beauty products for whitening your skin to cosmetic surgeons promising to fix your smile or give you hair transplant.

Public Service Announcements and Social Ads

Ads for causes like No Smoking, and Don’t Drink and Drive often have to resort to fear in order to drive home a point. Instead of simply showing some numbers, they create these stories in which a person (and at times even family or friends around them) is suffering due to their irresponsible actions.

Do Fear based ads work?

It is very easy to go wrong with fear based ads, thereby alienating your entire audience. And when this happens, brands fail to achieve the very thing that they had set out for. Fear based advertising is very delicate and greatly relies on striking the right balance between the core message and the emotion being projected. If the emotional bit gets heavier, people can simply choose to change the TV channel or skip the ad on YouTube.

If you really want your fear-based ads to work, you have to show a value proposition. For example, instead of just saying “Cyberattacks can cause you $10 million a year”, your communication can convey value by adding “Secure your business with our tool”. Fear-based ads do work but if you are only using fear, your brand will be perceived by one of those shady salesmen who try way too hard to close in on a used-motorcycle which has tons of issues. You certainly don’t want to come across as that person! That’s why use fear meaningfully where it truly applies, but also give the customers a solution.


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