The use of mixed emotions in fear advertising

Fear is frequently used to advertise many products, services and social marketing campaigns. It can be used to advertise home alarm system and insurance and etc. Also, it is also widely used in social marketing, discouraging unhealthy or dangerous behaviours such as smoking, drink-driving and alcohol abuse. Although using fear appeals in advertising has made some achievement to some extent, but some researchers found that the persuasive effect of fear advertising will reduce when the tension of fear increases (Mukherjee & Dube 2012). These following video clips show two examples of fear advertising used in commercial and social marketing.

As a negative emotions to the environment, fear is a strong motivator of attitude and behaviour modification, particularly when fear appeals accompanied by high-efficacy messages (Lennon, Rentfro & O’ Leary 2010). High level of fear tension causes fear and activates defensive responses, making audience, particularly those with most empathy and close relationship with the issue to escape from the message (Brennan & Binney 2010). In that case, many researchers suggested to introduce a sense of humor in fear advertising to reduce defensive responses and increase the persuasiveness of fear advertising.

Humor works in fear advertising in two ways. Firstly, as a fundamental ingredient of social communication tool, the playful nature of humor will provide a safety margin for audience, allowing them to elaborate the threatening message and aware their personality vulnerability to the threat. Also, humor effectively reduce the negative consequences of fear advertising, thus decreasing defensive responses to the advertising. Thus, despite humor cannot decrease the level of fear tension, it increases the effectiveness of fear advertising (Mukherjee & Dube 2012). For instance, dumb ways to die is regarded as a good example of mixing humor and fear in social marketing campaign.

Mukherjee, A, & Dubé, L 2012, ‘Mixing emotions: The use of humor in fear advertising’, Journal Of Consumer Behaviour, 11, 2, pp. 147-161, Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 15 May 2015.

Lennon, R, Rentfro, R, & O’Leary, B 2010, ‘SOCIAL MARKETING AND DISTRACTED DRIVING BEHAVIORS AMONG YOUNG ADULTS: THE EFFECTIVENESS OF FEAR APPEALS’, Academy of Marketing Studies Journal, vol. 14, no. 2, p. 95.

Brennan, L, & Binney, W 2010, ‘Fear, guilt, and shame appeals in social marketing’, Journal Of Business Research, 63, 2, pp. 140-146, Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 15 May 2015.


15 thoughts on “The use of mixed emotions in fear advertising

  1. Good topic. I agree with you that fear advertising should be approached with caution as their success is far from full proof. Interestingly, a 2013 meta-analysis by the University of Illinois ( found that fear appeals can often fail when it comes to repeated behaviours, such as dieting, and are more effective for one-time-only behaviours, including health screenings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment. Fear appeals are often used in social marketing, particularly in health sectors. Also, I guess it is very difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the advertising used in social marketing as people’s behaviours and attitudes are influenced by many factors.


  2. Nice observations guwen2015 and joannequan – and I think that when you get beyond the top line of some of these concepts you really start to see how they can be used effectively in different settings to change behaviours by shaping marketing comms in a way that is very specific to the target audience. The social markeitng angle is interesting too.. I was thinking about how different people might respond to fear campaigns based on what motivates them – e.g. if a drink driving campaign might motivate different people to think more about the consequences for themselves, or their loved ones, or that of the other people in an accident.

    Came across this research which suggests that for (in this case) drink driving that guilt also plays a part in addition to fear, and that those with a more independent self image are more likely to be influenced by campaigns referencing injury to others rather than themselves when it’s implied that they are at fault (i.e. implying they are at fault / guilty), but that the same doesn’t hold true when fear is used as the motivator.

    As an aside – who can forget 50 Cent’s foray into fear based marketing with his wildly successful joint venture, Vitamin Water, which pretty much indicated that it could cure cancer!


    • Thank you for your comment. Indeed, fear, guilt and shame are widely used in social marketing. However, as social markets have to consider the use of these negative compliance as the overuse of these negative appeals causes self-protection and inaction, making it difficult to produce a volunteering compliance among the audience. That is why many social marketers introduce a sense of humor into their advertising.


  3. When fear advertising appeals can influence the audience to purchase, it shows that it had a definite role in the heart of the audience, no matter it is a positive or negative feeling. The audience through advertising on the concept of product, brand and advertising to express a certain memory. Too strong stimulus will have a negative impact on audience choice and purchase of goods. They will decide on not to purchase.


    • Some audience may not be able to watch the full advertising if the advertising is too scary. So the advertising fail to deliver full message to customers, thus, affecting the effect of advertisings. Also, too confronting advertisng influences the effects of social marketing. Think about the Australian cigarette packaing, smokers may not have a look of the packing as it is too scary.


  4. Whilst the humour used in the “dumb ways to die” video went some way to softening the message, I think the whole concept of “fear advertising” is less than straightforward and carries real risks for advertisers. Consider this video for the National Stroke Foundation which was roundly criticised by the viewing public and actually censured by the Advertising Standards Bureau.

    There are many caveats in “fear advertising” and its effectiveness backed up by research. The ultimate risk is that too much of this material will just turn people off altogether.


  5. Emotions & fear in particular don’t really motivate me to change my behaviour, but this maybe because I’m not in the target audience (& therefore old & boring). Something humorous is more engaging & memorable, and sometimes intelligent as well. I agree with fmagee about people turned off, especially smokers for example the TV ads, the pictures on cigarette packets etc, this group is bombarded with messages re quitting. I know smoking rates are at an all time low, but how much of this can be put down to these campaigns?


  6. Good article, Fear is a frequently used heavily criticized way of communication. It could be to promote an idea, product or encourage good associations or to discourage participation in certain behaviours such as smoking, drink driving, associating drugs, illegal migration, etc.

    The below video by Australian government tries to fuel the fear and discourage crossing the borders illegally, but it has followed a moderate path where it doesn’t scare & drive the audience completely away from the campaign, but delivers the message while creating a fear/ uncertainty about settling in Australia.

    in this example the actual target segment in not the real refugees (theoretically they should be willing to settle anywhere safe), but the people smugglers and people who pay thousands of dollars to come and settle in Aus.

    I have seen some campaigns by TAC showing dead, wounded and/or traumatized people; at the same time there are some campaigns that make you think about what you do.

    We have to look at it from the target market perspective, not everyone is targeted with every campaign. Sometimes we might feel that it’s an awful ad campaign but it might be reaching the actual segment targeted.


  7. What an inspiring blog post! I never thought about mixing emotions like fear and humor. But when I have a look at the example “dumb ways to die” I think it is interesting how so different emotions can fit together. Instead of Nina emotions and fear motivate me to change my behaviour, I made the experience by fear ads about smoking as well as humour ads from brands I always thought they’re boring. One example is Edeka – a German supermarket similar to Coles. Another is BMW. I think they don’t must change the consumer behavior but maybe the brand image in a more positive way.


  8. 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.


  9. This is an interesting post. I guess the question i have is why do you believe dumb ways to die is a fear piece ? The topic of death doesn’t always denote a fear piece and i would align this more to a educational advertisement using comedy as a medium to enlighten their users.


  10. Very interesting blog, Dumb ways to die is very inspiring. I never considered that combing fear and humor could motivate people in terms of purchase behavior. I had only watched sorts of fear ads like insurance smoke or alcohol consumption. This is very interesting one. Thank you for sharing.


  11. Interesting article. I think fear ads are usually successful in raising awareness, but how effective they are is still a question to me. Take the “Speed ad – mistakes” as example, it is quite terrifying to me, but on a normal day I would not quite think of it, first being that I don’t drive on a daily basis; secondly I consider myself a safe driver, so the message of the ad does not stick to my head. My point is then, even if these ads are played frequently to raise more awareness, getting the messages right and targeting the right audience is key. If the audience cannot relate themselves to the ads, effectiveness of the communications is a question. Might be good to look into how different fear ads are compared to other cognitive ads/ comparative ads etc, as many of those ads are more of a persuasive nature.


    • I hear what you’re saying Natalie. I personally did find the speed ad quite effective and in the moment of watching the ad, I did have a brief moment where I thought to myself that I really do need to watch my speed (which is sometimes hard to do living in Germany as most highways don’t have speed limits). But unless there is a constant reminder, it is very difficult to remember the ad while driving. In this case what I find more effective in the moment are the billboards on the highways as they help to provide that constant reminder to watch the speed limit.


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