When Is It Ok To Use Fear Marketing?

Most of us have probably already heard, read, or repeated the popular phrase “sex sells”. It’s a reasonable claim to support given that most humans we know are intuitively triggered by it. But for any of us who have read Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology or taken a look at some neuromarketing studies, you know that there’s something even more powerful than sex when it comes to advertising… and that something is fear.

“Fear, in my experience, spreads faster than anything else…” – Martin Lindstrom, Buyology

The Basics

Let’s take a look at some physiology first before we go further. 

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of what we might affectionately call our “lizard” brain. It is responsible for emotions (both positive and negative), survival instincts and memory.

pasted image 0 (2)Photo Credit: Wired

Interestingly, humans are actually hardwired to experience fear, anxiety, uncertainty and other negative emotions more dominantly than the positive ones so it doesn’t take too much of an effort to get triggered by specific sounds or visuals.  

pasted image 0 (3)Photo Credit: PBS

In the fMRI scans above conducted by Arnal et. al (2015), you’ll see a test subject that is forced to listen to another human screaming or shrieking. The amygdala, shown on the left, is visibly active.

Understandably, this is a concept that hasn’t been lost on marketers. Many successful advertising campaigns in the past (and today) have made use of specific sights and sound to intentionally trigger a fear response in their audiences. Let’s take a look a few that have worked.

Examples of Effective Fear-Based Campaigns

1. Save the Boy (St. John’s Ambulance)

In this ad, St. John’s is trying to convince more people to take their first-aid course.

2. Anti-Meth Ad (Montana Meth Project)

The visuals in this one speak for itself. Don’t do drugs, kids.

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3. LifePaint (Volvo)

This one is thankfully less graphic or traumatizing but still pivots on a life or death situation. Volvo is telling us about the necessity of their new spray for any cyclers on the roads (aimed specifically at a European audience).

4.  Herbaria Tea (Herbaria)

This ad plays on common ‘fear motifs’ like drowning, dead people, clowns, and suspenseful music to convey the relaxing effects of their tea.

5. Listerine Mouthwash (Listerene)

This one’s an oldie but a goodie. Listerine actually hit the market as far back as the 1880s (who knew?) and was being used in a multitude of different ways from surgical antiseptic to floor cleaning. The product wasn’t much of a big deal until the 1920s when the owners of the company decided to formulate a completely new marketing campaign.

Using an old Latin phrase that had fallen out of use, owners Jordan Lambert and his son Gerard began using the word “halitosis” in their advertisements – a term that has a vague medical feeling to it. In fact, they framed this “halitosis” as a medical condition that was preventing people from being popular or socially successful.

The marketing campaign was extremely successful and propelled Listerine to the front of supermarket shelves for decades to come.

Photo Credit: Smithsonian

Now, all of the examples you’ve seen above are either for a good cause or sell a product that is relatively harmless. But what happens when fear marketing is used for something with much higher stakes?

Fear Marketing and Politics

The use of fear marketing in politics is nothing new or revolutionary. In fact, it is a common theme in political campaigns throughout various nations and across history.

In a study reviewing several decades of research across 12 different countries (Jost et. al, 2003), it was found that  “the psychological management of uncertainty and fear” was consistently correlated with politically-conservative attitudes. This is reflected in several electoral wins over the last century.

In 1964, American President Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad helped ensure his victory by playing to the fear of nuclear war. In 2004, the fear of terrorism was a major contributing factor to the re-election of George W. Bush. Today, President Donald Trump built up his voter base through the fear of the Islamic faith, job loss, and diminishing national identity.

“Fear-based appeals hit people on a primitive level,” Rick Wilson, a Florida- based Republican ad maker says. “When people are under stress, the hind brain takes over. Fear of Mexicans, fear of the Chinese, fear of African Americans—Donald Trump has very deliberately stoked it and inflamed it and made it a centerpiece of his campaign…” 

Simply put, when the stakes are higher, the desire to win gets stronger and the means to get to the win become less concerned with ethics or morality.

How far should we go?

As a content marketer, I am always concerned about the effectivity of my work. I want the content I put out to make waves, to hit people in the gut, to trigger them emotionally and stay with them for days.

Marketing rooted in fear has the power to do that.

Especially if it’s researched, created, and delivered well. But when is it ok? It’s not like we’re all working on electoral campaigns, right?

In a world where messages are communicated instantly across continents and digital advertising bombards people on every device throughout their waking hours, it’s important to seriously consider the far-reaching implications of our work. Who will be seeing it – and what decisions will they make because of it? Most of the time, these messaging strategies (corporate or political) aren’t illegal – which makes them difficult to prevent. However, in the end, I do believe that the decision to work on these projects lies in the agency and education of marketers. We all know, better than most, what the power of our work can be.

Thus, it is up to us to say no to campaigns that divide people, spur hate rallies or reduce tolerance. It’s up to us to say no to content strategies that promote sexism or racism. It’s up to us to maintain a sense of morality in our line of work.

We always have a choice.



       Arnal, L., Flinker, A., Kleinschmidt, A., Giraud, A., & Poeppel, D. (2015). Human Screams Occupy a Privileged Niche in the Communication Soundscape. Current Biology, 25(15), 2051-2056. 

Jost, J., Glaser, J., Kruglansku, A., & Sulloway, F. (2003). Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 339-375.



  1. Dear Serah,
    I love the book Buyology (I just gave it as a tip to Caroline). Indeed, fear is a very good tool for marketers. However, I think it is further reaching than you stated, even governments can use it to “market” new laws. A recent example from the Netherlands is the new “Sleepwet” which regulates the increased authority of the intelligence agencies to tap e.g. online communication from entire neighborhoods when there are suspects living there (https://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/blog/2017/11/03/de-sleepwet-why-five-students-are-trying-to-protect-the-privacy-of-dutch-citizens/). It is based on the fear of the recent terrorist attacks.
    I found that in New York there is a law dating 2005 which restricts obscene marketing (https://law.justia.com/codes/new-york/2015/pen/part-3/title-m/article-235). I mean, the ad with the drowning clown was quite shocking already for me, I am not sure how children will experience that, they will probably be scared. Therefore, I reckon there should at least be a restriction on when and where these kinds of fear marketing ads are shown and in which context it makes sense as well. I don’t think that this should be fully up to the marketer’s decision. What do you think?


  2. I found this to be a very compelling blog and began thinking I might have an oversized Amygdala after reading it over three times. When I got to the end of your piece, I was wondering how you think we should be taking steps towards ensuring that fear-based marketing cannot be misemployed by Marketers. Is self-policing of fear-based marketing sufficient to ensure that it finds its place but isn’t misused. How could that be done? Surely there is the black and white that defines wrong and right but what about those grey areas that make regulation, self-policing/self-discipline such a challenge.

    Here’s a “Fear-Based” Ad that becomes something completely surprising. I thought this was eerie and then it brought a smile to my face. That overworked amygdala I guess 😉

    I think one of the most egregious forms of fear-based marketing was the campaign by the U.S Government to get the world to buy into the idea that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction. This was highly effective because global political leaders told us to believe them. In the end, we learned that they lied. It worked because 1) We believe our leaders are credible (at least to some extent) and 2) Their message played to our fears.

    To your point, we have to maintain a moral framework in our line of work regardless of whom we serve.



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