Fear as Influence

Fear is one the biggest marketing tools to change consumer attitudes. But just how do they do it and does it really work?

Take for example anti-smoking campaign, smokers and possible future smokers are bombarded with messages on billboards and posters. They include gruesome pictures and fearful outcomes for those that smoke or even think of smoking. Some of the posters in recent past highlight;

Smoking causes blindness


Smoking and lung cancer


Smoking harms your kids.


The evidence on the effectiveness of fear appeals is mixed but I’m sure everyone can recall at least one anti-smoking advertisement. The aim of many of these campaigns is to discourage undesirable behaviour, namely, smoking. Anti-smoking advertisements usually they feature real-life smokers who have had serious health issues due to their habit. These ads are generally accompanied by frightening statistics and display the physical side effects and damage smoking causes.


Does it work?

Many argue that fear itself gives rise to a fight or flight response. An emotional response which is derived from the subconscious or uncontrolled. It has been argued that the key is to use fear as a mild threat to activate the fight response. Too much fear and people will try to avoid unpleasant ads and images. Thus the message itself will not be absorbed and people go into a flight mode.


Researchers Pratkanis and Aronson set out a 3 step checklist for successful fear advertising;

  1. Ad should be scary to capture audiences’ attention
  2. Ad needs to give specific methods of overcoming the fear
  3. Method for overcoming the fear is easy to achieve.


In the instance of anti-smoking, step 1 is easily achieved, however, steps 2 and 3 are much more difficult if the person is addicted to smoking. In contrast, an advert for getting people to use a certain toothpaste in order to prevent the adverse effects of gum disease would be easier for consumers to change their behaviour.

Fear as modelled against the 3 goals for influential advertising (Iacobucci 2014);

  1. Cognition: awareness and knowledge
  2. Affect: attitudes and associations
  3. Behaviour: actions

Extreme fear combined with no/difficult solution fails to affect changes in attitudes and associations. And thus there is no behaviour change. However, if the ad provides an easy method for behavioural change, then consumers are much more likely to changes in attitudes and behaviour.

There are also 5 base areas for analysing a successful ad. These are;

  1. Stimulation
  2. Information
  3. Negative emotion
  4. Transformation
  5. Identification

Fear advertising hits stimulation, information, and negative emotion markers. However, ads that are too extreme fail to evoke transformation and identification, but rather turn consumers into avoidance or flight. To have positive attitudes towards an ad is important, but when fear is the emotion, unfortunately the consumer is left with no option but to run!

 Blog by Wadavi / username – wadavi / Student No. 213335997


Henley N 1999 Unintended Consequences of Arousing Fear in Social Marketing – Available at: http://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=smatl_pubs Accessed on 5 May 2016.

Iacobucci, D. (2014) Marketing Management (MM), 4th Edition, South-Western, Cenage Learning, Mason

Pratkanis, A., & E. Aronson (1991), Age of propaganda. New York: W H Freeman & Co.


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