using fear in marketing to drive sales

Just like with this recent post regarding sadness as a tool for emotional marketing, eliciting fear in your audience likely feels counter-intuitive. After all, it’s a crummy feeling, and who wants to scare the bejesus out of their consumers?


Understanding the Psychology of Fear

Before we scare you off by trying to convince you to scare your target market, consider this: when you watch a scary movie, do you prefer to do so alone, or with a friend? If you answered, “duh, with a friend,” then you are in the vast majority who when presented with a fear-based stimulus, look to companions to share in that emotion, thus lessening its strength over you. When we are afraid, we want to turn to our friends and say, “did you see that?” thereby bonding you with that friend over the shared experience, and making the spooky feelings dissolve just a little.

This is because the emotion of fear is controlled by the amygdala – an almond shaped cluster of neurons that plays a key role in how we process emotions. The amygdala helps us determine the significance of a fearful event and how to respond, either with “fight or flight.”


Sharing in the fearful experience helps pacify our emotions and makes us less anxious. Nothing is ever as scary when you’re with a pal.


Using Fear in Marketing

The same applies to fear-based marketing. Research has shown that in the absence of a human, viewers of a scary movie or commercial will connect with whatever nearby brand is readily available to them. Actually, product placement works best in horror films than any other movie genre (scary, right?).

You may not have noticed it the first time around, but usually, the logo of the car that helps the last remaining protagonist escape is typically very obvious, and easy to see. Brands like Ford, Chevrolet and Volkswagen are often getaway cars in thrillers. It makes sense – you want a car that’s fast, reliable, and will get you away from centuries-old bitter ghosts in a jiffy.


Getaway car in The Conjuring, 2013. Better go fast!

Getaway car in The Conjuring, 2013. Better go fast!


Obviously, this won’t work for all brands. I don’t think you can be scared into wanting to buy cashmere sweaters, although the news of a hyperbolic chocolate shortage did increase chocolate sales.

So maybe it’s a matter of how creative your team is. (FYI, global chocolate shortage has recently been deemed a hoax. Thanks, Hershey. Hope you’re enjoying all of my expendable allowance).

For non-profits and companies whose products are produced in order to save lives, fear-based marketing in the traditional sense really works. Don’t text and drive PSA’s are supposed to terrify you in the hopes of preventing careless and fatal accidents. Most small business consumer brands, however, don’t have access to horror movie product placements or the desire to actually traumatize their audience. So where do you draw the line?


Using Fear in Marketing Videos

You have to consider what other emotions are linked with fear. Anxiety and anticipation in small, thoughtful doses can create a powerful marketing campaign, without sending your audience into hysterics. Remember this Skyfall Coke Zero ad that sent your regular Joe into a high intensity, stress-inducing 70 second mission to get their beverage?

The anticipation built with each obstacle, and by the end of it I felt a swell of relief that each of them were able to successfully complete their mission – to get a Coke. Coca-Cola stressed me out so much that I felt a perceptible change in my disposition when these guys made it all the way through to the end of the challenge. But it was brilliant! I loved the ad, I love James Bond, and I loved how Coke was able to effectively create an alternate reality for the participants that were swept into a world of action and espionage. If only for 70 seconds. It connected me with Coke in a way I would have never expected.


How You Can Apply Fear Marketing

Can you do something similar with your marketing?

Maybe a contest where your social followers have to find certain items (by taking pictures) and be the first to post them to your page, like a virtual scavenger hunt. Is there any way your product has bettered certain aspects of your customers’ lives? Is there any instance where your product helped a customer avoid a negative situation? If you sell car parts and accessories, could any of your merchandise either prevent the likelihood of accidents or increase safety in the event of one?

If you can create an experience of anxiety that your product either solves or makes the experience less profound, you can nail fear-based marketing.

This will likely not be more difficult to achieve than marketing with strong emotions of happiness, but take note from the thousands of brands that spend big bucks to get their products in horror movies – it may require more thought and planning, but when done right, its extremely effective.

Have you inadvertently bought something that was displayed in a horror movie? One brand that’s a regular in horror films is Converse. Might not be what you expected, but they have grown in popularity again since the 2000s. Any other product placements you can recall? Let us know in the comments.


This post is written as part of a series.  The other parts of the series can be found here:

  1. Part 1: Mastering Emotional Marketing Part One | Happiness
  2. Part 2: Mastering Emotional Marketing Part Two | Sadness


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