Making Fear-Based Campaigns Work

Recently, Rohit Bhargava reviewed some of his favorite but little-seen posts from the past six months, including one about fear marketing, which is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. He says

Fear marketers paint the picture of what your life might be like if you don’t get their product. They play into already existing fears, or paint new ones that consumers may never have considered. The end result is the consumer perception that the advertised product or service is a necessity to keep their family safe, make their life less dangerous, or avoid a situation they dread. But should we do it? Doesn’t this type of marketing just add to the plague of society, fostering fear and making us a weaker people as a result? Probably – but the problem with fear marketing is that it often works.

Fear appeals are used quite often in social marketing campaigns, not always to good effect. I’ve seen several campaigns lately that use this technique, such as this ad from Mothers Against Drunk Driving promoting a safe graduation (via Coolz0r):

Or this flyer from New Zealand designed to go on car windshields facing the interior, urging drivers not to speed near schools (via Adfreak):

Or this domestic violence PSA from Singapore that portrays the men who hurt women as literal monsters (also via Adfreak):

Or this campaign from the Swiss Amnesty International on transparent billboards that’s been making the rounds (via Houtlust):

What all of these campaigns have in common is that they try to instill the fear of what might happen if you do not support their causes. Do they succeed in getting people to take action? I’m not so sure in all cases.

Because I recently talked about this in the social marketing class I teach at UCLA, Kim Witte’s model of how fear-based appeals affect behavior change is at the top of my mind as I look at these examples. When people are confronted with messages that arouse fear in them, they will take one of two courses of action to dispel those unpleasant feelings — either taking preventive action to deal with the threat or controlling the fear through denial or avoidance of the issue.

Fear appeals can be tricky and are often ineffective in bringing about behavior change. But that’s not to say that you should never use them if you find in your research that the target audience responds to that approach. Here are some suggestions for how to make your fear-based campaign more effective:

  1. Make sure the portrayed consequence of not taking action is severe, but not exaggerated. You will lose credibility if you show someone dying of an overgrown toenail, but you will also not be taken seriously if you emphasize that a bad cough is the worst consequence of getting pneumonia.
  2. Make the audience feel that the problem is relevant to them. There are many problems in the world, and many issues for which people are bombarded with appeals to help. If you can show the people in your audience that they are susceptible to contracting that particular disease or at risk for experiencing the problem, they will be much more likely to pay attention. Tell them why they should care and how the issue relates to their lives.
  3. Provide a specific action that the audience can take to prevent the portrayed consequence from happening. The worst thing a fear-based approach can do is to raise the heightened feeling of danger without giving the audience a way to prevent that outcome from occurring. This could be providing a website or toll-free number to contact for more information, or even better, specifying what action the person can take right now to address the threat. Should parents make a plan with their graduate about calling them for a ride home if their friends have been drinking? Should they contact child protective services if they suspect a parent is abusive? Should the audience write letters to their legislators urging them to pass a resolution against repressive regimes, or send money to Amnesty International so it can take action on their behalf?
  4. Ensure that the audience believes that the proposed solution is effective in preventing the consequence. They may not agree that telling a child to “just say no” is enough to help them avoid being pressured into trying drugs. Do research with members of your target audience to find out what solutions they perceive as being effective or ineffective. You may have a simple solution, but if they don’t believe that your proposed action will actually work, they will not do it.
  5. Portray the solution as something that the audience can easily do. Similarly, if the audience thinks the solution is effective, but not something they themselves can do, they will not do it. Encouraging people to meet with their legislators to discuss how to fix the problem will not be seen as feasible by most individuals who are not full-time activists. Sending an e-mail or making a scripted phone call might be much more doable.

While this type of fear-based approach can be very off-putting if it portrays death or injury in a graphic way, sometimes people do need to be shown the possible outcomes to get them to take action to avoid that situation. A recent study showed that patients with high cholesterol are more likely to be motivated to stay on their medication after seeing an actual scan of their own arteries showing blockage from plaque — kind of like the medical version of Scared Straight. You can’t get more personally relevant than seeing evidence in your own body of your risk for heart disease, and taking a pill is seen as both easy and effective.

What fear appeals have you seen that have either spurred you to action or made you shudder and change the channel?


  1. Hi Nedra
    About the examples:
    – The New Zealand Traffic ‘Speed’ Ad: In my opinion a example of failure in communication. The target audience they want to reach don’t give a damn about death children or any other kind of Fear-Based Campaign. The only thing that would help is repressive police methods.

    – The Amnesty campaign is not a good example. It’s not about what could happen. It’s about what is happening now abroad.

    A good Fear-Based Campaign I think:
    A anti drugs campaign from brazil. I don’t know exactly why, I’m familiar with some drugs and after seeing this campaign (see the vids) I was shocked for a day and made me think.
    The problem with anti drugs campaigns is to choose your audience: possible future drug users or nowadays addicts. For the last one the campaign had to have the same view as drug addicts have.
    The ctdia example have both.

    A bad Fear-Based Campaign I think:
    What is the message here? The pay-off is about the dangers of nuclear power, but the vid is about a terrorist attack or aeroplane accident.
    The vid gives a unnecessary paranoia.

  2. A subtle fear-based campaign that produced impressive results here in the UK was the British Heart Foundation’s anti-smoking adverts.

    The advert focused on the fatty deposits that can build up in the arteries of a smoker. You can watch the ad on YouTube.

    According to a BHF press release, the ad achieved a 90% recognition rate amongst smokers.

    I think this advert worked due to being straightforward and down-to-earth rather than sensational.

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