Be afriad… Be very afraid!

You have an important message. Your message needs to be heard. You want to change the world… make a difference, but how? We are constantly being bombarded with advertisements in our day-to-day life. How do you cut through the noise of the everyday and make a message really stick?

Do you pull together the best designers and advertisers to come up with something unique and influential? Do you call up your favourite celebrity and have them spruik your message to their multitudes of fans?

No, you don’t.

You go straight for the jugular… yes, you heard right. You scare the living daylights out of your audience to make a lasting impression.

Fear is a powerful motivator! It can be very persuasive and is commonly used by advertisers to encourage their audience to change their behaviour. Generally speaking, this tactic works best with awareness campaigns for issues such as health, safety, politics and the environment.

Who could forget the chilling Grim Reaper 1987 AIDS Campaign? The campaign launched with a prime-time television commercial featuring The Grim Reaper bowling over terrified human pins in an underworld bowling alley and no one was safe.



The commercial taught us that HIV/AIDS is a widespread epidemic that didn’t discriminate. Men, women, children and even babies were at risk. The follow-up campaign emphasised that prevention is the only cure and was distributed through popular marketing channels such as television, newspapers, cinemas, magazines and radio.

An unprecedented 97% of people surveyed were aware of The Grim Reaper campaign, suggesting that HIV/AIDS was at the forefront of the public mind. People believed that The Grim Reaper was responsible for increased awareness and behavioural changes. The campaign had prompted public debate and the desire for more information.

While fear campaigns are a popular marketing strategy, not everyone agrees they are the best tactic. Some argue that using fear to promote a cause may do more harm than good. The Grim Reaper HIV/AIDS awareness campaign was extremely successful at getting attention, but was largely criticised for scaremongering, exaggeration and frightening children. So, the challenge is: how do you voice your message in a way that makes people want to change their behaviour or take action without crossing the line?

Today, it’s difficult to escape fear-inducing messages. One of the most common is the anti-smoking campaign. The evidence on the effectiveness of fear appeals is mixed but I’m sure everyone can recall at least one anti-smoking advertisement. The aim of many of these campaigns is to discourage undesirable behaviour, namely, smoking. Anti-smoking advertisements usually take the form of a showcase; they feature real-life smokers who have had serious health issues due to their habit. These ads are generally accompanied by frightening statistics and display the physical side effects and damage smoking can cause, no matter how gruesome.

blind_1  Ads_4_0Anti-smoking ad

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, smoking is recognised as the ‘largest single preventable cause of death and disease in Australia’ (AMA 2005). About one-fifth of people 18 years and over were smokers in 2007, this number has decreased down from 23% in 2005 and 24% in 2001. A factor they attribute to the ‘high level of investment in anti-smoking campaigns’ (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2010).

So there you have it. It is proven that fear mongering and scare tactics make a lasting impression on their audience, increasing the rate of behavioural change and increased awareness.

In your opinion, do fear campaigns work? How do marketers promote awareness without crossing the line of social acceptability? Do fear campaigns have an impact on you? Please feel free to share you thoughts and comments in the comment section below.


Winn, M 1991. ‘AIDS prevention through health promotion : facing sensitive issues’, Geneva : World Health Organization, retrieved 5 May 2015 <;

Manyiwaa, S & Brennanb, R 2012. ‘Fear appeals in anti-smoking advertising: How important is self-efficacy?’, Journal of Marketing Management, Volume 28, Issue 11-12, 2012, retrieved 6 May 2015

Robles, H, A 2012.  ‘Fear Appeals Used in Anti-Smoking Campaigns’, Applied Social Psychology (ASP), retrieved 6 May 2015 <;

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2010. ‘1370.0 – Measures of Australia’s Progress, Health, Smoking, retrieved 7 May 2015 nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/1370.0~2010~Chapter~Smoking%20%>


32 thoughts on “Be afriad… Be very afraid!

  1. Great subject- fear campaigns can work well if they keep the heart of the message in th campaign, rather than just going for shock value. This is where I think the TAC (that’s Transport Accident Commission in Victoria) adverts from the mid 90’s-mid 2000’s did really well. they showed realistic, familiar scenes where something went terribly wrong, and the longer-term impact on those characters (think, “bend your knees, Katie”
    I still remember the Grim Reaper ads, and although I was a bit young to understand them at the time, the imagery, and their longevity in the consciousness, meant that the message did make it into my head when I was older.
    I do find some of the Quit Campaign adverts a little graphic, but I’m not their target audience.

    It’s difficult to gauge how far you can cross the line with fear – or heightened reality – and there have been adverts pulled because they’ve caused offence, rather than shock ( – and compare to I imagine it’s difficult to get the balance right – something that requires some perspective outside of the marketing team, and even then, it can still be prone to bad timing by outside events.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree the TAC ads are really effective. The stats speak for themselves.
      In 1989 before these ads started 776 died on Victorian roads.
      Within five years of this education campaign, that toll was halved to 378.
      This figure has continued to decline over the years with 243 deaths in 2014.
      In conjunction with this, the number of serious injuries that occur on Victorian roads has significantly reduced.

      Of course other factors have played a part in reducing the road toll (eg. better technology in our cars, greater law enforcement). But there is no doubt in my mind that the ads have impacted on social expectations and ultimately driver behaviour on our roads.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I too remember the Grim Reaper ads – I was in my first year at Uni doing Nursing. It was graphic & scary. I can’t remember any other fear based marketing campaigns at the time. I think to some degree, we’ve become desensitised to fear campaigns or maybe that’s because I’m dull & boring & not the target audience for most of them. How else can you highlight something that has serious consequences like smoking, speeding, driving under the influence? You’re trying to change peoples behaviour & that’s not easy when the product you are trying to stop them using is addictive like cigarettes, gambling etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I think that is the most important point nkraskov: You are only able to highlight something that has serious consequences like diseases, smoking, speeding etc. But in my opinion it doesn’t work. If you are a smoker – would you stop smoking because you know the consequences of smoking? Or if you are always driving faster than allowed – would you drive slower in the case that nothing happened to you before? I think you don’t. Fear campaigns are getting attention – that is right. But I think as a smoker for many many many years you wouldn’t stop it in the case you get a tumor printed on your cigarette packet. So I think this sort of campaigns isn’t that affective.


    • There is definitely a focus on showing people what can happen if they continue to do what they do. Smoke and you will get cancer. Speed and you will crash. I do think people have become more desensitised and these campaigns may not be as successful as they were.


      • Yeah, but I think meanwhile there is a focus on everything that can happen if people continue to do things. Its like: fatty chips cause cancer, junkfood causes obesity and health problems… So for that reason there must me a warning for everything… Normally…


  4. Emotional ads rely on humour, fear appeals, subliminal ads, image appeals, and endorsement. Fear ads use negative emotions. Some ads are overdo it that makes viewers are afraid of that. So the fear ads should provide a solution to reduce customer’s fear. Fear campaigns are making customers ‘ attention, but Trying to change people’s behavior is not easy, I don’t like the disaster picture on the cigarette cases, because it doesn’t help for smokers to quit smoking.


  5. Great blog. I agree with you that fear campaigns definitely make an impact. Every time I see a road campaign or quit smoking campaign the emotion that goes with it resonates strongly with me. I find myself glad that I don’t smoke, and that not many of my close friends or family do either. I’m always keen to hassle smokers I know about giving up and saving their lives and money!

    The road safety campaigns always make me think that maybe I should take extra care when I’m out there. But do they reach their target audience ? These days you have got people on their phones, people speeding, drink driving, not paying attention, not wearing seatbelts, driving tired, just to name a few. How do I as a responsible driver avoid the risky drivers?

    The ads need to be emotive, they need to be seen as relevant and targeted. They probably do push the boundaries for what is acceptable for some people, but if they don’t elicit the right response, or make that strong connection, they wont be successful.


  6. I think that fear campaigns can have an effect but they are probably more persuasive for those people who have already started to think about their behaviors and are ready to make changes. No doubt they offer some shock value but if you are not the target you do become a bit de-sensitized after a couple of times. I would be interested in understanding what long term effects they have on our children and if they have any impact on them taking up risk behaviours ?


  7. I think fear advertisements can be effective but agree that if they go too far, the receiver will block out the message… I recall numerous TAC commercials where I would change the channel once I recognised the ad within the first few seconds. However, all these years later I can recall them, so I suppose that even with only one or two viewings – they certainly had an impact.

    I don’t recall the grim reaper add at all (I was only very young in 87), but it clearly had a huge impact if it can still be recalled nearly 30 years later!


  8. Interseting post!
    Here are some links to the most-shared scary ads of all time that I really want to share with you guys:
    including some well-known brand :iphone, LG and McDonald

    Marketing has embraced the spirit of All Hallows’ along with the creepy talents of Unruly to create world’s scariest ads and marketing stunts of modern days. Unruly and Marketing have ranked the ads on the basis of their number of all-time shares, while the selection is also slightly subjective – otherwise there would have been a few too many zombies, and as much as we love the undead, they can get a bit tedious with all that moaning and shuffling.

    These Halloween ads were scary and funny at the same time. I would love to create one of these for my company.if I’m the marketer. It would really get someone’s attention and make them remember and also make them tell their friends about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, I have never seen the PS3 ad before. It is so scary. Great way to create attention – children and babies are always very scary in movies – scarier than adults!


      • The little girl in the Blackberry ad certainly gives me chills. Thanks for sharing ce732.

        It is also interesting to note the entertainment factor we receive from these videos. Trawling through YouTube looking for content I was certainly entertained but also found a lot of content that was just too graphic for me to want to include in my blog. Where do we draw the line?


      • That one make me WOW too when I saw it on Youtube for the first time. it is denefitely a shocker. Sometimes it is even creepier and more shocking when using little people to illusreate images and demonstrate opinions! More importantly, in fact, it is such intensitivity and thrill feeling make watchers remember the ads and exactly the succeeding key for commercials.

        Liked by 1 person

      • @lgilbert33 No worries! hope you enjoy the links and my post will inspire you and give you more ideas for your reflective essay. Also, the point that you brought up that there needs to be a line about how graphic and vivid the ads could be. I absolutely agree with you as some commercials give me the chills especially at night time when I browersing through the internet just before going to sleep. I thinks the line should depend on the type and age of te audience groups as well as the showing time.


  9. Personally I hate these commercials are always on! Being a person who does not smoke, take drugs or drink and drive, I always hate to watch these advertisements. I tell myself “why do I need to see a smokers lungs, I don’t plan on being a smoker so that would never happen to me”. Being a squeamish person I don’t want to see these things.

    However being a person affected by family members who have had their health affected by these things, I do hope these have an affect on others.

    Overall using emotions in advertising is the best way to connect to people. Scaring, humour and sympathy are great ways to connect to how people are feeling.


    • I think it is not a several problem to a special target group – it becomes to a problem to everyone. As you said, it should have an affect on you even if you are not a smoker, drinker etc. but you are able to influence your family with the background of knowing that so horrible thinks could happened after the consum of this things.


  10. Hi
    How effective is to see how an ad to catch sight of the audience, the audience can remember in the shortest possible time the brand even be the advertising content presented things. Advertising is also very intuitive thing.

    1. Advertising is the biggest, fastest and most extensive information delivery media. Through advertising, business or company can feature products and services, functions, uses and supply manufacturers and other information passed on to consumers, production and demand communication links between the two sides, causing the consumer’s attention and interest, to promote the purchase. Therefore, the information is passed quickly communicate advertising supply and demand, acceleration of commodity circulation and sales.

    2. Advertising can stimulate and induce consumption. Consumer demand for a product, often a potential demand, this potential needs and realities of purchases, sometimes contradictory. Visual advertising caused by the feeling of the image as well as induce consumers tend to evoke real desire to buy. Some affordable, marketable new products, because customers do not know, it is difficult to open up the market, but once you make the advertising, consumers would have to buy. In addition, repeated ad rendering, repeated stimulation, will expand product awareness, and even cause a certain sense of trust. It will lead to increased purchase volume.

    3. Advertising can better introduce product knowledge to guide consumption. By advertising can fully introduce product performance, quality, use, repair and installation, and allay their fears, worries eliminate them due to the repair, maintenance, installation and other problems that arise, resulting in the desire to buy.

    The ad to promote new products, development of new technologies. A new product, the emergence of new technologies, relying on administrative means to promote, cumbersome and slow, significant limitations, but through advertising, direct and general consumers meet, make new products, new technologies quickly gain a firm foothold in the market to be successful.


  11. Political advertising certainly makes heavy use of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Anyone who has watched television during an election has seen their share of ads that paint a grim, dark future (or present, if they’re fighting against an incumbent). The US has a rich history of these ads, such as this one, which paints the political candidate Tom Tancredo as the only man who can stop Islamic terrorism:

    Some of them seem so absurd you would have to question their effectiveness, but they endure as a political strategy; perhaps we’re more easily swayed by fear than we would like to admit?


  12. I think thses scare campaigns have an initial impact, however, I think society quickly habituates to their content. A member of my team at work is a heavy smoker and I have asked her multiple times how she keeps the habit up given the awful photos on the packet. Her response is that she simply doesn’t look at it and she then proceeds to tell me how the stats and info is actually all incorrect including that some of the people are from overseas etc. As a HR manager that is responsible for OHS I am always amazed at how strongly smokers defend their habit- we offer employer sponsored quit programs and products but we typically find that our team members who smoke just pull the posters down! Whilst I am sure there is a degree of success with these campaigns I’m also sure more people just tune out, change the channel or do whatever other tactic they can to avoid the message. Therefore, I think there’s is a place for scare tactics in marketing but that it shouldn’t be the only tactic employed.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Interesting post Laura! I think fear campaigns do work sometimes depending on the message and who it is targeted at. It is important for marketers to ensure that the message in the ad is clearly relayed otherwise the whole campaign ends up being a waste of time and money. There’s a fine line between trying to scare the audience in order to get them to stop doing something like smoking and scaring them in such a way that they start avoiding watching the ad. I’m not a smoker, but every time I see an ad on smoking, I want to change the channel because most of those ads are too graphic and in my opinion disgusting. That being the case, the message of the ad is lost on me because all I see is an annoyingly disgusting ad and I don’t allow myself to listen to the message.


  14. I think fear advertisements are generally effective and people always pay attention to the message they delivered. Fear ads normally provide persuasive information which evokes fear or concern. However, the target audience may be different. Different people fear different things. Different reactions depend on culture, age, gender, etc. For example, in the Netherlands, there is a long tradition of road safety advertising with an emphasis on humor rather than fear. This is in contrast to Australia that often shows images of crashes, injuries and blood. Gender is another factor that determines whether or not fear campaigns have the desired effect. Women tend to respond more favourably to fear campaigns than men. Young males seem to discount and avoid fear campaigns, which have less effect on them.
    Apart from the emotion of fear, there is also disgust. I would say that disgust provides a positive enhancing boost to fear campaigns. Another issue I want to mention is that even if fear campaigns are able to influence behaviour, they should be used in conjunction with legislation, education and law enforcement. Otherwise, they don’t deliver sustained reductions in deaths and injuries.


  15. Fear campaign would have a effect only on new entrants as they still have that insight that they are doing something wrong which can have consequences.
    People who are chronically addicted, in spite of pressure from their loved ones, society and fear of contracting diseases, mostly do so by developing strong defense mechanism in their brain. The wall is too hard to penetrate unless they have some personal scary encounter with the actual consequence.


    • I tend to agree with you….I feel like school children exposed to these advertisements would not want to take up smoking, but long term smokers brush them off and pay little attention….ignorance is bliss.

      Fear in advertising is probably a great preventative measure, but it seems to do little to those who are already victims of substance abuse. However, if the anti-smoking campaigns run for long enough hopefully less people will take it up and smoking will soon be seen as a historical pastime.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I was part of the 97% that was aware of the Grim Reaper campaign. I am definitely not one to be swayed by scare tactics but I have to say that this campaign definitely made an impact.

    At the time, there was a great deal of news and media about the growing problem of AIDS and this campaign played on that increased awareness. It used the heightened general awareness and leveraged of that considerably.

    It is a little different now. I think society as a whole has become much more desensitised to disturbing images and concepts. The fear that can be instilled is not so great when the nightly news or media have disturbing content bombarded at us regularly. Wars, floods, earthquakes, massacres…. people have enough to be scared about.


  17. Great post. TAC, Work Safe,smoking, now and Ice epidemic campaign…all make me look away but I do take notice. There is no point sugar coating areas of our society that cause death and grief and addiction. Change needs to occur and sometimes this is only way to do. I remember as a kid watching the Grim Reaper bowl people over who had aids…I can still see those ads. But they made a change, as does smoking and especially TAC here in Vic.


  18. I have not seen that AIDS ad and I’m in shock! 🙂 No wonder it was largely criticised for scaremongering..

    What I have seen are the quite smoking ads on cigarette packages. As an ex-smoker, these ads had little influence on my tobacco consumption habit personally. If you smoke tobacco, most probably you are aware of the health risks that the habit is causing you. It’s an addiction, which is not going to simply disappear when you see such graphic images on the packages. Does it make you think? Perhaps! But for me the primary reason to quit was the increasing taxes and prices on tobacco products. I quit smocking because it slowly became a very expensive habit to maintain.

    I have mentioned this elsewhere, but I must add that I find it a bit strange that despite many anti smoking campaigns, the costs of nicotine replacement therapies in Australia are almost as high as the tobacco products themselves! The price of Nicotine gums for instance are almost the same as the price of cigarettes, which could potentially lead to little encouragement to accept such substitutions.


  19. I believe that using scare tactics, whilst so graphic and upsetting for some people to see, does leave that lingering memory that you never seem to forget. As most have commented, people all remember the Grim Reaper ad, the smoking ads and TAC ads, and I agree with one of the earlier posts that it is perhaps targets people who don’t already smoke or speed etc as is more of a preventative than actually having an effect on those who already do it. I have found that my children are very concerned by seeing the ads around smoking and TAC and often want to discuss them once they have been on, but more particularly it is the Worksafe ads that they seem to be bothered with, because we go to work and we have family members and friends who work in roles similar to those that were advertised for a while such as in a kitchen where they spill the pot of boiling water, the factory where they put their hand in machinery because everyone is busy and something is caught so they just try to fix it themselves. I feel that because the ads are so graphic and scary, that children pay more attention and want to talk about it, but most importantly they remember. My teenage daughter has just started working in a cafe after school and has remembered the ads that were on some time ago and discussed them with me, it has made her think about how important safety is for herself and others. The link below is one of the hard hitters that I will not forget.


  20. Very interesting blog. Thank you! To me, scare campaigns are more likely to stop people doing or buying stuff, eg. the smoking ads, TAC ads and etc. They are not like those ads that encouraging the purchase. I am sure the Tobacco organisations hate to see the smoking ads run by the governments. Watched the ads CE732 posted. I forced myself to watch the entire ads of PHONE4U, but I would change the channel if that was on TV.


    • Thanks for watching the links that I posted. I tend to have the same habit that sometimes I have more patience wth the online ads rather than TV commercials, but I never understand why I do so. Maybe that why nowadays marketers are more prone to avdertising on social media.


  21. Thanks for the lovely post.
    Emotions arise from the subconscious. Which means we don’t get to choose which emotions we are going to experience from one minute to the next. Based on what neurologists have discovered, there’s a 50/50 chance that all our actions are a reaction to one of two things — a perceived threat or a perceived reward. Recently, researchers have documented threat responses as more intense and longer lasting than reward responses.
    Fear is the result of a perceived threat, which we respond to in one of two ways: fight or flight. The key to using fear as an advertising strategy is to avoid intense threats that activate the flight response and instead focus on mild threats that activate the fight response.


  22. Good post, young people “don’t think it will happen to me.” Like adults, they are genuinely shocked and dismayed by horrifying images of auto accidents, overdose victims and smokers with artificial voiceboxes. Like adults, they are able to recall ads that feature such images. Yet none of this seems to influence their behavior. While most adults have learned from painful experience that they are not immune to negative consequences, youth tend to feel invulnerable (and may need to maintain these feelings in order to accomplish their developmental goals of leaving their family nest.)


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