Fear Appeals in Advertising

Promise Anti Cavity Toothpaste(6.35Oz., 180g)The fear appeal is most important among emotional appeals, and also the most effective. It is said that the message’s effectiveness increases with the level of fear it generates. The use of fear appeal in getting people to start doing things they should is very common. Many ad messages of toothpaste employ this appeal. They present the fear of tooth decay or unhealthy gums or bad breath, and then suggest the use of a specific brand of toothpaste to get rid of such fears. A recent ad of “Promise” shows a boy weeping because of severe toothache, and then suggests the use of “Promise” to avoid a recurrence of toothache.

A fear appeal of this kind is used in a wide variety of product categories. When products are designed to protect an individual from some loss of health (medical or life insurance), the fear appeal of the type illustrated above can be effectively employed. Then there are products designed to protect an individual from loss of property (automobile or home), which successfully employ fear appeals to induce a particular buying behavior.

Fear appeals are at times used in ad messages in connection with getting people to stop doing the things they shouldn’t do. The advertisements relating to prohibition, prevention of losses and conservation of energy fall in this category. The warning on the cigarette packet that smoking is injurious to health is a typical example, even though this is a statutory warning and advertisers themselves would not like to include it is the ad on their own.

Then there are many products that are, directly or indirectly, involved in the avoidance of a fearful situation. A large number of advertisements employ the fear appeal in their ad messages of products, which relate to more subtle social and psychological motivations, such as loss of status, friendship, job, position, and so forth. Personal-care products (soaps, cosmetics, deodorants, shave lotions, mouthwash, etc.) fall in this category.

Fear is the higher level of tension; but anxiety has been used to promote the sale of a large number of instant foods, other food products and home appliances. Think of ads wherein the housewife’s anxieties are fully exploited to get the message across to the target audience.

The more carefully fear is built, the greater is the tension resulting in a greater drive from within to reduce the tension. Research studies have proved that extremely great fear appeals ate less effective than moderate ones in motivating people to adopt the product and eliminate fear. However, very weak fear appeals are not effective either in evoking the desired response. Therefore, a selection of the appropriate fear level is important; it should be strong enough to heighten the drive of the people to buy a particular product. But if an excessively strong fear is pictured, it is possible that people would exhibit a defensive behavior, and tries to avoid the ad, and may not be prepared to accept the threat. They may even take the view that the solution recommended in the ad may be inadequate to deal with so great a fear. However, some researchers have found cases where strong fear appeals have worked beautifully. They feel that buyers have different tolerances for fear and that therefore, different levels of the fear message should be set for the various segments of the audience.

However, the underlying concept that every message should promise to relieve, in a believable way, the fear it arouses should be the ultimate guide in the selection of the levels of fear appeals. A general principle of “not too much and not too little” is most relevant in the selection of appropriate fear appeals.

CARE (an American conducted a methodical study in rural north India (mainly UP) ad agency) to discover which of the two appeals – positive or negative-would work better in getting a nutritive food accepted. The positive appeal was love of children and the negative one was fear of the consequences of malnutrition. The “love” campaign featured a proud mother rearing her thriving child on the prescribed food. The “fear” approach created a frightening devil (rakshas), symbolizing the disease and misfortune arising from wrong food habits. These campaigns were run for a full year in two different areas. The evaluation of these campaigns clearly showed that the fear appeal created a great deal more awareness of the value of the nutritive food. The negative proposition aroused immediate reaction because of the fact that an unpleasant bang is more likely to make one sit up than the melodious strains of soothing music. Some authors and experts in the field of advertising, however, may disagree with this view. But fear appeals are seldom composed entirely of negatives. The warnings generally pave the way for positive advice and exhortation, and in this form the negative appeals appear to be just as effective on the average as positive appeals.

Hunter 34357 3-1/2-Gallon CareFree Plus Humidifier with PermaWick FilterTake, for example, the recent advertisement of Khaitan Kitchen fans employing a negative appeal. The headline states: “Are you cooking or being cooked?” It goes on: “Every housewife knows how miserable she feels when she cooks. It makes her irritable and saps her energy. Khaitan presents a simple, efficient and inexpensive answer. ‘The Khaitan Fresh Air Fan.’ It drives out smoke, smells and heat, and brings in fresh air. Not only that; thanks to the continuous inflow of fresh air, the chances of dampness are eliminated. And this prevents cockroaches and other insects from breeding in your kitchen.”

The headline and the initial part of the body of the copy effectively create fear; but the latter part of the copy presents the solution and the positive appeal of the product. Such is the most common form of the advertising message – first building up fear and then offering a solution with other positive appeals of the product advertised. On the level of fear, Aaker and Myer, in their book, Advertising Management, rightly state that fear or anxiety has two kinds of possible effects on message reception and yielding. As a stimulus, its effect tends to be negative; and as a drive, it tends to be positive. Furthermore, too little anxiety tends to provide an insufficient drive, and too much anxiety tends to make the stimulus aspect predominant. The net result of these two factors is to make the relationship between anxiety level and message effectiveness non-monotonic, with maximum effectiveness occurring at the intermediate levels of anxiety.

And, lastly, so far as appeals to fear are concerned, this approach is useful for products that are of little interest to consumers when rational appeals are employed. Even in cases where the product fulfils a generally recognized need, fear appeals are effective. Take the case of life insurance. Fear appeals are still required to sell policies. However, fear appeals fail in the case of the cancer hazard of cigarette smoking, which is often rejected by most smokers.