Should We Use Fear In Our Marketing?

Jul 6, 2016

Should We Use Fear In Our Marketing?

by Jul 6, 2016

by | Jul 6, 2016 | Marketing

While there are many great debates in how to execute marketing messaging, today I challenge us to consider the use of fear in marketing.

Fear is a frequent trigger in all types of marketing messages and advertising. Usage of fear in communications is designed to do one thing – trigger an intense reaction.

In marketing circles, fear in messaging is sometimes referred to as alarm – the idea of compelling someone to take urgent action in order to avoid something bad happening.

Tame versions of alarm in marketing communications are “hurry, the sale ends today” or the tongue-in-cheek FOMO commercials… fear of missing out. Aggressive versions of alarm include a company that advertised electronic tags for children who get separated from their parents. With four kids of my own, I’m sweating reading up on this topic. Gulp.

Alarm in marketing communications is a thinly veiled threat that wrinkles our brow, or does much more depending on how our brain chemistry works.

The amygdala in our brains is the central hub, where the senses and sensory reactions are triggered. As something we fear occurs, the amygdala communicates with our spinal cord and heart while triggering responses in our blood pressure and respiratory system. For example, imagine you hear an intruder in your home in the middle of the night. You may start sweating, your pulse will quicken, your blood pressure will shoot up, and your breathing may become irregular.

Which brings us to our fight or flight response…

Depending on your brain chemistry, your brain may release more oxytocin or more vasopressin when confronted with a fear-conjuring situation. Oxytocin calms you and places you in control, while vasopressin obliges fear.

This is dramatically boiled down, but the truth is that fear is quite useful for us humans. For example, if someone breaks into your house, fear is useful as a protection mechanism.

Okay, back to marketing.

The reason a marketer – whether in a political campaign or a company – intentionally appeals to our fears is because they know it works. Every time. Without fail.

And, that fear-based approach is something I personally find creatively obvious and extremely disappointing. From a messaging perspective, the use of fear is designed to elicit a quick response and fast results. It’s a shortsighted, tactical marketing maneuver. (I favor thoughtful, strategic marketing.)

Remember that Nationwide commercial from the 2015 Super Bowl? The ad creative tricks you into believing the story of a young boy growing up and doing wonderful things, when in reality the ad is telling the story of what should have happened, if only a good insurance company were there to prevent the boy’s death.


Whether fear is used in subtle ways, or overt ways, it is generally present. Check out the ads the next time you’re watching TV or flipping through a magazine. Count how many use fear, and email me. I’d love to know what you see.

Whether it’s Nationwide or the campaign in Europe for and against the Brexit, fear is sadly commonplace in marketing messaging.

Which triggers a question I hope you’ll ask yourselves today: As a consumer, are you susceptible to fear? As a marketer, are you willing to wield fear to achieve a business goal?


Submit a Comment

read more thoughts from our team