Last but certainly not least in our series of articles on advertising appeals comes the fear appeal. Fear is a highly effective tactic when it comes to advertising a full range of products. Learn more about the fear appeal, see effective use cases, and figure out when to apply fear appeal in ad creative and when to choose an alternate emotional appeal.

Understanding the Fear Appeal

As explained in the initial post of the series, fear appeal leverages the threat of real or perceived risks to persuade consumers to buy a product or service in order to avoid a consequence of not having that particular product or service.

High fear appeal ads include classic anti-smoking or anti-drug ads, which connect to the underlying health risks of smoking or doing drugs. The ad below, from the World Wildlife Foundation, plays upon an innate fear of the unknown or “monster” to suggest that if humans do nothing about climate change, they will become monsters.

Less well-known, yet still effective, are low fear ads that trigger anxiety and fear. Examples include ads for mouthwash, which suggest that bad breath may be keeping you from getting a date or a new job. Household cleaning products like the Swiffer are often advertised with a low fear response: Viewers feel like they need the product in order to combat harmful germs hiding in plain sight.

To be effective, you must appeal to a specific, named fear. You can’t just make one up. When successful, fear appeals either evoke your perceived vulnerability or perceived severity. For example, you may ask yourself, “how bad would that hurt me?” when watching an ad for bicycle helmets that features a cycling accident. Or you might wonder, “how likely is that to happen?” when watching an ad that discusses the health risks of smoking.

When to Use the Fear Appeal

Non-profits often use fear-based advertising appeals to solicit donations to their cause. Whether it’s supporting endangered species, preventing climate change, helping alleviate child hunger, or anything else, non-profits find that fear helps make their mission specific and meaningful to their audience.

While the fear appeal has been proven to work, it is not universally effective. Studies from the University of Illinois haven shown that fear appeals do not work as well when it comes to lifestyle changes (such as dieting) and are less effective with men than with women.

Fear appeals are more effective on detection-based services or products, such as cancer screenings or HIV testing than on preventative scenarios like vaccination.

Fear appeals can also be ineffective when paired with disturbing or grotesque images, as a result of people’s natural aversion to such images. If you are planning a fear appeal for a public health issue, choose the images for the campaign carefully to avoid turning off (rather than engaging) viewers. Strong language can also turn off consumers who may think the ad is overstating the dangers of going without the product or service or decide that they are not part of the target market of the ad.

While neuroscience marketing professionals may opt to use a fear-based appeal in any scenario, knowing where it is and is not effective can help you ensure that you are choosing the best approach in a given scenario. When combined with strong ad creative, real data, and compelling image or video copy, fear-based appeals can help you achieve your goals.