Spooky marketing tactics: Do they work and are they ethical?

Fear in marketing spooky image

Spooky marketing tactics: Do they work and are they ethical?

Halloween is just around the corner. As a marketing agency, it got us thinking about fear-based marketing. We all know that the emotion of fear can cause a significant reaction. But can fear influence consumers to buy products or services? And further, is it ethical for companies and organizations to tap into this fear to get people to act? Grab your spooky lantern and let’s explore the topic together!

What is fear-based marketing?

For those unfamiliar, fear-based marketing can be defined as the use of consumers’ fears to motivate them to purchase a product or contribute to a cause. The consumer appraises the product in light of their fear of the consequences of not buying.

Using fear in marketing goes back to 1920s, when Listerine created mouthwash to fight bad breath. The advertising campaign showed a beautiful woman struggling to get married because of her bad breath.

This was a novel approach, since personal hygiene was limited at the time, with people showering infrequently and deodorant not yet widely used. But it paid off, with Listerine’s revenue soaring from $115,000 to $8 million within seven years.

How exactly is fear-based marketing used?

You’re probably familiar with some well-known fear-based marketing campaigns. And there’s a reason they have stuck in our heads for years. Studies show that people better remember and more frequently recall ads that portray fear than they do warm or upbeat ads or ads with no emotional content.

The emotion of fear is triggered using tactics like verbal warnings of specific risks or the use of graphic or gruesome images. Some examples include imagery of burglars breaking windows in a home or a testimonial video from individuals who lost money because they didn’t have adequate car insurance when they got in an accident.

The purpose of both examples is to get consumers to become afraid of things like burglars and car accidents and how they could negatively impact their own lives, encouraging them to buy a home security system or new or better car insurance.

Fear working for good.

Although fear-based marketing can have a negative reputation or be seen as manipulative or unethical to some, there are instances where it is used to positively influence society. Some examples include anti-drunk driving campaigns, dental hygiene ads warning of the health dangers associated with not flossing and the use of a frying egg to depict “your brain on drugs”.

Executions of these strategies have evolved over the years. In the past, companies were more likely to exaggerate their claims and were less likely to make a logical connection between a potential risk and the possible outcomes. Today, companies tend to emphasize factual accuracy and believability for a more direct, impactful message.

What are some examples of modern-day fear-based marketing?

Fear plays a big part in political smear campaigns, in which one candidate attempts to stoke fear in voters that their opponent poses a risk to them and their way of life. This might include a political candidate stating their opponent will remove funding for a critical service.

With COVID-19 spreading throughout the country, marketers have adapted their messaging to speak to the current state of our country. While there are certainly examples of marketers leaning on the fear created by the pandemic (those selling masks, pandemic-themed merchandise, specialty hand sanitizer, etc.), the majority of brands have opted for more gentle, positive messaging. Instead of focusing on the negative, many companies have taken the “we are all in this together and things will get better” approach, hoping consumers will find comfort in their marketing and be encouraged to buy their products or services. This is a great example of knowing when and when not to rely on fear to sell your services.

FOMO in Marketing

FOMO, (Fear of Missing Out), is a relatively new acronym, but has been used in marketing for much longer. FOMO is defined as fear of not being included in something (such as an interesting or enjoyable activity) that others are experiencing. Social media takes FOMO to a new level, increasing levels of anxiety and depression among users who are constantly shown photos and videos of other people leading “perfect” lives and engaging in activities they wish they could be a part of. FOMO-focused marketing really is not all that different than fear-based marketing. While the “risk” in FOMO-marketing is often more general and less severe, the approaches are very similar, with most FOMO messaging stating, “If you buy x right now, you’ll be so much happier,” or “If you don’t buy x right now, you’ll never find happiness.”

But does it work?

As with many elements of marketing, the answer is: it depends!

To be effective, the strategy and tactics have to be used:

  • in the right way
  • at the right time
  • targeting the right audience

The communication must be designed to be believable and make the threat seem real. Looking at a review of 16 studies, all of which focused on the effectiveness of fear-based messaging to reduce substance abuse, there were mixed results. Eight studies showed positive results, with fear tactics helping increase the likelihood of individuals to seek assistance for substance abuse issues.

While these results are encouraging, four studies concluded that the fear-based messaging approach had the opposite impact, resulting in decreases in numbers of calls to tobacco “quitlines.” These mixed results highlight the importance of fully understanding your audience, the environment in which they are receiving your messaging, and any and all potential risks or negative consequences that could arise from your good intentions.

Is it ethical?

An element that often goes along with the discussion of the use of fear-based marketing is the question about ethics. One concern is that using these fear-based tactics in which risk or dangerous outcomes are overexaggerated could result in an audience (or large percentages of a population, even) believing that they are in more danger than they truly are.

There are also considerations to be made about how different audiences respond to anxiety. While the effects of fear-based marketing on mentally healthy individuals are temporary and minimal, these messages may have a more severe, lasting impact on individuals struggling with mental health issues, including anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), separation anxiety, etc.

The jury is still out regarding whether the use of fear-based marketing is ethical or not. Some argue that intense emotions such as fear should not be tapped into for corporate gain, but that it’s alright to be used for those “positive” societal outcomes. Others may argue that marketers who use “happiness” to persuade audiences to act are doing the same thing as those using fear, just at the other end of the spectrum.

We’ll leave it to you to decide:

Do you think it’s ethical to create fear in individuals to motivate action? Does it depend on the action? Is it wrong to use these tactics for monetary, corporate gain, but okay to use for causes like anti-drunk driving and drug abuse campaigns? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

Speaking of fear persuading consumers to take action—I’M AFRAID…we just ran out of Halloween candy. I guess it’s time to buy more!

Headshot of Matt Wodenka

Matt joined the Writing by Design team in June 2020. Matt’s previous work roles include Client Development Manager at iResponze, (hospitality brand marketing), Social Media Manager at Extended Stay America Hotels and Copywriter at JUICE Pharma Worldwide. Matt earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass media from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and his master’s of mass communication from the University of South Carolina. Matt enjoys using research, insights and innovation to provide quality communications for clients. From Twitter posts and video scripts to CEO presentations and training modules, Matt loves finding creative ways to gain and keep an audience’s attention.