Appeal to Fear Marketing Psychology: Does Scaring Your Buyer Work?

If you’re just looking for a quick answer, yes, appeal to fear marketing does work. It works at creating negative emotions.

But does it actually spur the buyer to take the desired action?

Almost every purchase we make as humans is based not just on need, but also emotions.

The psychology of pleasure and pain can explain a lot of our purchase behavior. 

Put most simply, people want experiences that bring pleasure or reward. They want to avoid experiences that bring pain. It’s a concept based on over 100 years of psychology and behavioral science research.1

(This even includes social pain, such as rejection. Apparently even this form of pain can cause a similar response to physical pain in the brain.2)

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So as buyers, we’ll make purchases that either bring us reward or move us away from pain.

And as marketers we want to effectively connect with this by being aware of the impact of our messaging on people’s emotions. It helps us create campaigns that resonate, stand out, inspire action. The most memorable brands are the ones that make us feel something. 

Think of your favorite brand, whether it’s Apple or Disney or Publix Supermarkets or Tiffany & Co. You automatically get a positive feeling. It’s a result of the investments these brands have made into consistently crafting the right marketing over the years.

What about when you think of brands like Advil? 

I asked my friend what their first thought or feeling was when I said the word Advil.

“Hangover,” they immediately responded. “I’ve only ever taken Advil to cure a massive headache after drinking.”

The Peter Parker Principle

The definition of fear-based marketing is noted as: “Communications…designed to stimulate anxiety in an audience with the expectation that the audience will attempt to reduce this anxiety by adopting, continuing, discontinuing, or avoiding a specified course of thought or action.”5

In this moment I’ve been seeing a lot of conversation specifically around the use of fear appeal by the media. It’s the most blatant example of in-your-face, deliberate creation of fear to motivate action. 

Unfortunately it also highlights why fear-based marketing has a bad rep. It comes across as manipulative and detrimental to the audience’s health.

Audiences seem to get particularly turned off when they detect messaging is purposely trying to induce the specific feelings of shame or guilt.

I’m sure the basic ethics of marketing and advertising are already a consideration in your mind. So let’s explore that aspect as well as the benefits versus negatives.

Appeal to Fear Marketing Research and Studies

A report on fear appeal in marketing from the 1970s (yes, I dug deep into Jstor!) raised concern about the power of this category of messaging.5 It also pointed out three important reasons behind this concern.

One Even a single exposure to fear appeal messaging could induce anxiety. 

Two — Anxiety resulting from fear appeal messaging showed ability to modify behavior.

And three — Anxiety is contagious. Seeing someone having a fearful or anxious reaction spreads those emotions to the viewer. 

For example, a child watches their father panic at the sight of a snake. They pick up on dad’s cues and may display similar fearful behavior.

Another study found that audiences can absolutely reach a cut-off point where they say THAT’S ENOUGH with marketing that tries to evoke negative emotions.4

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“Many felt that even when they take notice of marketing campaigns, they would ‘switch off’ from the message because of the negativity depicted within the message and any subsequent call to action.”

Instead of creating the effect you want, it appears overuse of fear in marketing leads to feelings ranging from “passive helplessness to angry activism,” none of which gets more focus put on the call to action.

Basically too much negativity coming from multiple media streams burns out audiences. It eliminates any possible benefits.

As an extra tidbit, studies have suggested providing a potential positive outcome when using fear appeal can reduce the anxiety or stress on your audience. It’s what your call to action should focus on if you’re running this kind of campaign. 

You need to answer the question: How will your product or service create a solution and alleviate the anxiety you’ve created?

Fear-Based Marketing: Not a Linear Sequential Model

One of the most visible examples of a fear-appeal marketing campaign was the one targeting the tobacco industry in the 90s. 

Perhaps you remember the truth campaigns that tried to dissuade teens from trying cigarettes and tobacco products?

The campaign (the first not sponsored by the tobacco industry itself) set the goal of interrupting the tobacco industry’s targeting of teens and children. And it pretty effectively used a variety of tactics to create the appearance of a unified movement of youth against tobacco companies. 

But the campaign also revealed some other interesting things about fear-based marketing tactics.

A study on anti-tobacco marketing campaigns concluded that the results of fear tactics in marketing aren’t at all straightforward.6

“Fear messages assume a direct, stimulus response, effect by the media; the individual hears, understands, accepts, and then acts on the message. In advertising literature this is known as a ‘linear sequential’ model and it takes many forms, but all characterise advertising as having a measurable and predictable effect on a basically passive individual.”

In actuality, the anti-tobacco campaigns weren’t easy to define as successful.7

While attitudes toward smoking did become more negative, percentages of teens and middle schoolers who smoked were still substantial in the 2010s. Marketing by the tobacco industry, even with the purported goal of lowering smoking rates among teens, still engendered perceptions of the industry as respectable, cool, and sophisticated.

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Breaking the relationship that the tobacco industry had built over the generations with consumers would take a more ongoing, nuanced approach. (Note the emphasis on the relationship between the industry and consumers.)

Success is measured on a number of factors that can vary depending on the demographic being studied. 

Per the study, “A paradigm shift is needed to equip us for the next generation of tobacco control. This should [recognize] the cultural, as well as the individual, determinants of smoking, and begin to address these with broad, empowering messages. We need to play the industry at their own game, create brands that are trusted and respected, and above all begin to build long term, adult relationships with our target audiences.”

The key takeaway here? 

You can’t judge success of fear messaging with a broad metric. Over-generalizing the results to try to build a simple ROI report hides any true insight to be gained. 

Examples of Fear Tactic Marketing and Advertising

Some industries have traditionally always been known for purposely eliciting a fear response from audiences. 

Pharmaceuticals, for one. Health and beauty is another. 

Image courtesy of this blog

You wouldn’t know it from commercials over the years, but not having white teeth won’t actually ruin your chances at finding love or getting a job or any of the other claims made by dental hygiene products.

I’ve seen a few other examples of fear appeal in marketing lately.

Slack positioned itself as the email killer when they first emerged. The brand successfully latched onto the feelings of overwhelm and frustration that arise from a slammed inbox. 

And HEY email service recently took a similar approach in capitalizing on those negative feelings toward the typical email experience. 

They also built up tremendous demand around the initial product launch using a wait list to create FOMO (fear of missing out).

Then there’s this headline from new employee engagement platform LEON.

The Wrap Up on Fear Based Marketing: To Scare or Not to Scare

So does fear-based marketing lead to increased conversions or purchases?

I think we can safely say the tactic does create an emotional response in the audience, and it does modify behavior or thinking. There is evidence that skillful use of fear in ad copy can increase click-thru rates and conversions.8

But studies find it hard to draw a direct straight line between the intent of the marketing and the end effects seen in buyer behavior. 

Your buyers are complex minds whose response to your message is impacted by traits that contribute to their cognitive diversity.

For the most part psychology has more closely studied the use of both negative and positive reinforcement to control behavior. 

But as with anything, there are ethical standards we should uphold when the intent of a campaign is purposely to manipulate. 

Brand reputation is on the line, especially as customers get more savvy about these kinds of practices and look to have more authentic engagement.

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1. McLeod, S. A. (2018, January 14). Edward Thorndike. Simply Psychology.


3. McLeod, S. A. (2018, January, 21). Skinner – operant conditioning. Simply Psychology.

4. Brennan, L., & Binney, W. (2010). Fear, guilt and shame appeals in social marketing. Journal of Business Research, 63(2), 140-146. 

5. Homer E. Spence and Reza Moinpour. (1972). Fear Appeals in Marketing. A Social Perspective. Journal of Marketing, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Jul., 1972), pp. 39-43.

6. G. Hastings and L. MacFadyen. (2002). The Limitations of Fear Messages. Tobacco Control, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 73-75.



Categories: Marketing