Scaring Customers to the Checkout

Marketers have sworn by the adage “sex sells” for nearly 150 years. By and large this has gone unchallenged. That is until recently social activist groups and innovative marketers challenged it. It appears there is another oft-overlooked heavyweight in successful advertising: fear appeal. Fear may just be the new sex appeal.

This works exceptionally well for products which are a nightmare to sell. Take for example locksmiths. Few people would bounce out of bed in the morning and say “Today I’m going to go find a Auckland locksmith!” Even though Auckland has incredibly high theft rates, it’s difficult for anyone to be excited about visiting a locksmith. Instead they should be scared. Most people don’t search out locksmiths until the worst has happened. Same goes for security systems and fire alarms. It’s often too late.

But people really do need these products. And the only way most people learn is through negative experiences. So how do you sell them without breaking into their home or being an arsonist? This is where fear appeal kicks in. Let’s examine two effective uses of fear appeal:

Other People Make Mistakes

The New Zealand Government is great at making clever advertisements which make use of fear appeal. And it’s not just us kiwi’s who like to toot our own horns. This ad was widely successful internationally and has over 10 million views on YouTube alone.

The advertisement has a twofold fear effect. Firstly it creates the fear of putting your loved ones lives in danger. By highlighting the innocence of the child, the viewer recognises the impending grief and guilt. Secondly it creates the fear of others. By instilling fear of others driving, the advertisement urges caution and raises awareness of the nature of many road accidents. 

Traffic accidents are not lighthearted. So would a lighthearted advertisement with happy music and near miss crashes have the same effect? I don’t think so.

Is Your Business Fire Compliant?

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Everything about this Chubb advertisement screams fear appeal. Firstly is the striking image. The image is in no way an exaggeration or overstating the importance of fire safety. Even so, it is shocking , uncomfortable and incredibly confrontational. The image serves the purpose of a fire alarm: it creates an unblockable siren-like noise to cause you to take action immediately. Read: fear appeal at it’s finest.

The text adds to this effect. Asking if a business is fire compliant is witty and creative. It puts the responsibility fully in the business owner’s hands. After placing this uncomfortable feeling in the audience, Chubb describes itself as a trustworthy business. This turns the business into almost a safe haven. When a company (unlike the NZ Government) is using fear appeal, the best thing they can do is make themselves a safe haven. Make themselves a solution to a dangerous problem.

Of course, these examples are fear appeal at it’s finest. Unfortunately it has also been manipulated. Industries selling non-necessities, such as the beauty industry, manipulate the fear appeal to create feelings of low self-confidence and dependence. However this is just the scary side of fear appeal. But when fear appeal is used effectively by Chubb and the government, there is nothing scary about it’s use at all.

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