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Thursday, July 16, 2020

FEAR FACTOR In Advertising – The Impact On Consumer Psyche

Fear Factor In Advertising

“If a TV commercial can scare you, they can get you to buy their product, and don’t think they don’t know it.”

A couple of decades back, ‘Fear Factor’ began to emerge as an innovative way to create demand for a product by generating an insatiable need to subside this fear, and this was made possible only through purchase of the product. Fear forces the consumers into making an emotional rather than rational choices. As Seth Godin says, “Marketing with fear is a powerful tool. Fear is a universal emotion, it’s viral and people will go to great lengths to make it go away.” From FMCG, to insurance to national elections; fear has proved to be an effective persuasion technique wherever used ominously or suggestively enough. The reinforcement of this negative sentiment is achieved through exaggeration, graphics or repetition. Finally, like most tools crafted by humans, this one has also been manipulated and exploited in inappropriate ways to achieve superficial success only to find the strategy backfire.

Fear: A Fatal Attraction?

Studies in psychology claim that deep within the human psyche is an innate attraction to fear. The ability to confront it gives vicarious pleasure to the mind, making an individual feel stronger. Even the simple act of a customer making a particular choice of the brand can be attributed to the paranoia and fear of the consequences of making a wrong product choice. The success of fear in advertising can also be explained by the theory of “Negative Reinforcement”, where a particular behaviour is strengthened by the consequence of stopping or avoiding an aversive condition. For instance, Dettol has become synonymous with anti-bacterial properties inducing the belief that its use is perhaps the panacea for germs and infections.

Manifestations of Fear

Fear afflicts people in a plethora of ways – each giving rise to the need for going to any lengths to quell or kill it. Rather than adopting a product-centric approach to demonstrate how fear has been deployed as a tool, we infuse an approach that focuses on the root-cause of fear associated with its manifestations. We identify and enlist a few below.

Fear of Instability and Fear of Others

Often the megalomaniac’s fear of losing power finds expression in politics. In 1984, the supporters of Rajiv Gandhi skilfully deployed fear as their key campaign vehicle when the Indian electorate was obscured by the uncertainty that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Another common weapon used in politics is the spurring of communal intolerance which arises from the “Fear of Others”. Interestingly, this trend is prevalent world over, proving that temptation to succumb to fear is irresistible even for the developed countries. The chilling ‘Daisy Ads’ aired in 1960s in United States effectively mobilised support in favour of Lyndon Johnson. Since then, campaigns centred on delicate themes of terror, depression, economic turmoil and in recent times, the recession, have become the norm. A study of undecided voters by CNN revealed that such “attack ads”, as they are rightly called, tend to wield an instant influence on the voters.

Care-Giver’s Fear

Typically this group comprises of mothers and wives who are largely driven by unconditional emotion and concern and all that the brand needs to do is raise the stakes. Marketers and Ad-makers have unabashedly utilised all aids to tap into this group – visual, audio, deep metaphors etc.

A few techniques have been identified:

Raise Anxiety: The most common technique employed is to hike the fear about unseen yet existent enemies. Pepsodent, with its onomatopoeic phrase “Dishum Dishum” hit home run by establishing itself as the most effective germ-fighter and the only way to save the kids from all possible dental concerns. Dettol and Lifebouy have also treaded the same anti-bacterial route to accrue market share. While Complan, positions itself as a magic potion, without which children would end up as dwarfs.


Demonstrate Danger: In 1980s, Marico used this technique to promote Saffola, breaking the erstwhile inertia to talk about death and illness openly and shattered the myth that people tune off to negative visuals. The dramatic ad featuring a man wheeled into the Operation theatre centred on the stressful urban life and food habits leading to “lifestyle” diseases like heart attack at an early age.

Saffola active

On the other hand, LIC, the pioneer in the field, has described its products over the years – child’s education, daughter’s marriage etc – the death cover is always unsaid, unspoken.

Fear of Rejection:

Every teenager’s nightmare; be it the first job-interview or dating, the fear of being turned down is extremely stressful. This is cleverly exploited by numerous ads that arouse tension and induce irrational fears. The most exaggerated being the fairness cream ads that convince people that their product is the last ray of hope to attain that elusive fair complexion which is a prerequisite for a bright career and a colourful social life. Coupled with the traditional Indian affiliation to light skin, this strategy is a definite winner.

Fairness cream

Fear of AGEING:

Life insurance companies attempt to appeal to a person’s innate dislike for ageing and add to it a tinge of portrayed helplessness and senility to give it the desired proportions of fear. On the other hand, Plastic Surgery ads target people’s vanity and egotism. A recent inclusion is the ads promising a cure to obesity and premature balding.

Why Not in a Lighter Vein?

Lacing humour with fear has been more of an exception rather than the rule. We have identified that the humour element works well when the product or concept is perceived to have profound implications despite the humour.


For instance, the Havells’ switch ad despite its slapstick humour does convey the message of safety in electrical switches. Contrastingly, an introduction of humour and make-believe in a situation where the consumer sees no alarming threat makes the ad facetious and sometimes even offensively repulsive.

Fear Factor: A Sham?

Over the years, there have been cases of fear mongering simply to boost sales. One such case is that of Nathaniel Easson in 1998. The dramatization of the infant’s whooping cough earned the vaccine manufacturer considerable market share. However, investigations later revealed that the claims were highly questionable. This is a cruel example of exploiting the care-giver’s fear of protection. While for products like seat belts, fear is the only selling point, for numerous other products fear-factor is deliberately induced and deftly articulated through exaggeration, audio-visual aids and repetitive reinforcement. Fear as a negative reinforcement, forces the consumer to use products which they start to believe are indispensable for their safety. However, overtly manipulated consumer perceptions have led to brand failures due to lack of sustainability of the fear-fad.

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