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Ads That Go Bump in the Night


Don MacNeil is the former Marketing Director of Windsor Jewelers and long-time on-air radio professional.


Is it just me, or…

Ads That Go Bump in the Night

When our small businesses are on the line, we think nothing of employing any device necessary to ensure survival, including but not limited to, frightening people into doing business with us. Most of the time we do it without a second thought, but my intention, should you choose to go this route, is to arm you with an understanding of what you’re taking on.

We’re talking fear-based marketing here. It’s the strategy of creating advertising around a customer’s fears and insecurities, and then offering a solution to them. Think termite pest control and home alarm companies just for openers.

In this century, insurance companies have universally gone the humor route in their ads, but not so long ago they went right for the throat by showing a happy family on a front lawn until Dad suddenly disappears, with an ominous voice asking, “What happens if….” That’s Fear-based Marketing.

Here’s a little history: In the 1920’s Listerine was an $115,000-a-year antiseptic product until they introduced ads showing a woman struggling to get married because of bad breath. Sales soared to $8 million in seven years, giving birth to Fear-based Marketing.

There is, you should know, an ongoing debate in the marketing community as to whether fear-based campaigns actually work. Unsurprisingly, the shock-and-awe approach has been used to discourage some sort of bad behavior, but often these campaigns cause the opposite effect.

There’s perhaps no better example of this than the barrage of anti-drug campaigns launched in the ‘80’s, ‘90’s and early 2000’s by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The “This is Your Brain on Drugs” campaign is one of the most watched PSA’s of all time.

The “This is Your Brain on Drugs” PSA was an example of fear-based marketing campaign.

These used fear as a motivator, but after decades on the air, researchers found that the ads were not only ineffective, but may have inadvertently encouraged drug use. Why? The ads were too heavily focused on parental oversight, sending the message, “If you do drugs, your parents won’t approve.” And it doesn’t matter what decade we’re in, teens will never think it’s cool to listen to their parents.

But if you remove youthful contrariness from the equation, other studies show that people recall ads that portray fear more frequently than they do warm or upbeat ads or ads with no emotional content.

Further, if you scour the internet on this subject you’ll find a plethora of articles weighing the ethics of going the fear route. I’ll bet the ranch these writers have never had it all on the line with a small business of their own. Human history suggests that ethics are what happens after the bills get paid.

So what’s the bottom line? Subtlety.

Focus-group questioning has revealed that if you’re too heavy-handed with fear, it triggers a negative reaction to your company and your hope of gaining a customer. Take a termite control company, for example: Rather than building a case around what it’s going to cost you if the little buggers have their way, they might instead accentuate preserving the value of your home and realizing added dollars when you sell.

And too, if chances are decent that your competition is going to likewise go the fear route, then audience confusion between the two of you is almost assured. Use your charm and good looks to zig while they’re zagging. You’re good at what you do. Tell the world.

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