If you asked a layperson what they knew about advertising they might say “sex sells.” That’s been the summary of advertising for a very long time. But, fear may be as powerful a biological motivator as sex. Does fear sell?

Yes. Well, maybe.

Advertisers use fear in two different ways. They either build it up or broadcast their ability to free you from it. The fear building technique is often used by PSAs to discourage certain behavior. The freeing technique is used by brands to push products. This type of ad often seems less sinister. Think of the deodorant or  mouthwash ads that broadcast their ability to keep you from the fear of smelling bad. That’s not so awful, and these ads typically skate under the radar because they feel so much less traumatic than an anti-smoking or anti-drinking message.

However, that isn’t to say ads using the freeing technique can’t be harmful. After all, Listerine essentially invented the idea of bad breath as a medical concern to sell more of their surgical antiseptic and made us all a little more neurotic in the process.

Regardless of which category of fear an ad falls into, it would be wise to consider the Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM). The EPPM is a framework for understanding how people will react to fear-inducing stimuli like fear based advertisements. According to the EPPM, there are four inputs that determine message success: self-efficacy, response efficacy, susceptibility, and severity. Susceptibility and severity refer to an individual’s belief in how likely and how serious the advertised danger is. While self-efficacy and response efficacy refer to their belief they can perform the actions needed to prevent the danger and that those actions will avert the risk.

One might think the higher the susceptibility and severity the better the ad will do. But actually, according to the model, when fear is too high (and efficacy too low) the message will be less effective because people will avoid the fear by tuning it out. Thus, the optimal combination of the elements involves efficacy measures that are at least as high as danger levels.

Even with the EPPM, the ad profession is divided on the success of fear based advertising. The results are inconsistent. Is it because of poor execution, differences between products (for instance between low and high involvement products), or perhaps even a subtlety with branding where fear based advertisers acquire negative emotions? These are all plausible explanations.

But, even if we were to find some optimal formula for success we haven’t discussed the ethical questions yet. Generally advertising seeks to improve people’s lives. We might overemphasize a need here or a want there, but good products have an innate value. We’re not in the business of pushing bad products because that hurts everybody in the long run. Can we still say there’s inherent value in a product if it solves a fear we had to create in order to sell it? 

If you’re going to use fear based advertising tread lightly.

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