Remember when you had to wait for Halloween or watch an R-rated horror film if you really wanted to see something gory and terrifying? Now you can see far more horrifying things on television—people being brained on Walking Dead and disemboweled on American Horror Story. Worse yet, there’s that one anti-smoking commercial where a teenager rips off part of her face to pay for a pack of menthol cigarettes. (If you haven’t seen it, I envy you. I’m not even going to link to it. You’re welcome.)
I’m all for dissuading young people from smoking, but when PSAs go from scary to emotionally scarring, we’ve got to ask ourselves: Has shockvertising gone a bit too far, and is fear-based marketing really the most effective way to change minds and win hearts?
Image attribution: Shttefan
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good emotional appeal, and I understand the temptation to prey on fear. It’s the most primal of all emotions, and therefore the easiest to manipulate. It also makes for a good story, or better put, an easy story.
I started out my career in journalism but I got my degree in English. Through that major, I received a lot of solid writing training, but most of my nightly reading those four years (and the eighteen years that came before it) was fiction. So, when I started working as a business journalist, I had two shifts to make as a writer. I had to learn the lingo and the stylistic differences between academic writing and business writing, and I had to rein in my flare for the dramatic.
The second challenge proved much more difficult than the first. Even after years of working with the same editor, there was one piece of feedback she still had to give me. Scrawled across the top of my draft, I would occasionally find some version of: “Ugh! This intro is SO negative. It does not make me want to read the rest of this article. Please find a way to lighten it up.” Once or twice, she added, “Maybe have a glass of wine and try it again?” (To be fair, that wasn’t terrible advice.)
She was usually right about the writing, too. I had a tendency to go all “the sky is falling, but it’s cool, because this article is going to tell you how to avoid/fix the problem.”
I eventually learned that there is almost always a more positive way to approach a topic. But almost is an important word here. The truth is that some topics are just plain scary, or at the very least, unpleasant to think about. Trying to put a positive spin on them can feel forced, shallow, insignificant, even irreverent.
Last year, I wrote an article for the Content Standard entitled “Should Brand Storytellers Be Afraid of Fear-Based Marketing Tactics?” It delved into the psychology of fear tactics—why they work, when they don’t work, and why positive stories are more likely than fear-based marketing to engage readers and inspire brand loyalty.
I stand by everything I wrote, but there is a caveat: If the topics that are most central to your brand (or important to your readers) are scary, and if those topics are too serious to try to spin in a positive light, you might have no other choice than to lean into the drama and freak people out.
But a word to the wise: If you’re going to go to the dark side, there are more empowering ways to do it than simply scaring people. Instead, give them the information and inspiration they need to fight their fears.
Anti-smoking groups aren’t the only fear-based marketers, but they’re definitely among the genre’s most prolific contributors. Some of their ads are more memorable than others, but do they actually work as intended? That depends on who you ask.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) certainly think fear-based marketing works. The federal organization’s haunting “Tips from Former Smokers” campaign is now in its sixth year. After deeming that PSAs with statistics and dramatic reenactments weren’t getting the desired effect, the CDC decided to try a different approach, one that tends to be far more persuasive and (at least in this case) far more terrifying: real-life stories. The commercials feature actual smokers living with some of the worst effects of tobacco use, who offer tips on how to go about life with a colostomy bag, or how to shave your neck when you have a hole in your throat.
According to a 2016 CDC study, more than 1.8 million smokers attempted to quit smoking because of the 2014 campaign, and an estimated 104,000 Americans actually quit as a result. Those numbers are fairly impressive. It’s not a lot of people in the grand scheme of things, but to 104,000 people and their loved ones, it’s a big deal.
Why weren’t those other 1.7 million smokers scared straight—and all the others who saw the commercials and didn’t even consider quitting? It’s a really hard addiction to kick. Just as importantly, it’s an addiction that requires you to get comfortable with fear.
Smoking is an arguably stupid thing to do, but smokers aren’t stupid. They know the risks. In 2017, it’s pretty much impossible to live in a developed country and not know that tobacco use can shorten your life. But so can a lot of other things—stress, fast food, driving, the sun—and there have been many smokers who lived well into their 90s (my great-grandmother smoked and lived 97 healthy years).
Death is a certainty in life, and while it’s scary, it’s a fear we’ve all had to find ways to live with. Most people still go outside, drive cars, and eat cheeseburgers. Life is risky; smokers are just playing at a higher-stakes table. They’re already more comfortable with fear, so fear-based marketing isn’t the most effective way to get many smokers to take action.
I know this because in 2014, whenever I saw one of those horrifying “Tips” commercials, I didn’t even consider quitting. I did what many smokers do when anti-tobacco PSAs come on. I changed the channel, and because I suddenly felt stressed, I lit another cigarette. When I finally did quit several years later, it was out of love (for myself and the child I wanted to have), not out of fear.
Granted, 1.8 million Americans who saw those ads did at least try to quit, but the vast majority quickly gave up their efforts. The problem is that fear tends to fade over time, so while it can be an excellent motivator, it doesn’t necessarily have long-term power.
According to the American Psychological Association, fear appeals work best when you recommend a one-time behavior change, rather than repeated behaviors, and kicking an addiction isn’t a one-time decision. It’s a choice you have to keep making.
So what is more persuasive? In a survey that asked 1,000 people what type of public service announcements are most memorable and engaging, 69 percent said they are most likely to remember the ones that present facts in either a straightforward or surprising way, while only 20 percent said they tend to remember the ones that scare them.
Straightforward and surprising is exactly what Truth Initiative, a leading tobacco-control nonprofit, has delivered in its latest paid ad campaign. Rather than trying to scare or shame smokers, these commercials tap into a far more empowering emotion: anger.
In a series of ads that ask “Business or Exploitation?,” Truth Initiative calls out tobacco companies for deliberately targeting groups based on their challenges in life—including people in low-income neighborhoods, people with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, and even young men and women entering the military.
To really drive home the point in this video, real-life soldiers read memos circulated by tobacco company executives describing why they’re targeting military—namely because they’re “less educated,” have “limited job prospects,” and are “part of the wrong crowd.”
The soldiers in the video didn’t appreciate that characterization, and neither do many Americans. The idea that tobacco brands think so little of national heroes, or that they would exploit mental health conditions, isn’t exactly hard to believe. But it is infuriating.
Is it infuriating enough to inspire some smokers to kick the habit? It’s still too early to say for sure, but the tactic certainly has potential. Addiction aside, most people want to do business with brands they trust—brands that make them feel good about themselves and others, not brands that would say hateful things about their own customers.
What’s the takeaway here for brand marketers? If you can’t use positive emotions to make your case, consider using a better negative emotion than fear.
Fear requires us to make a choice: fight or flight (quit smoking or turn the channel and light another cigarette). Anger just makes us want to fight—not to survive the situation but to change it. Granted, anger is not a more positive emotion than fear, but it is a more empowering one.
The challenge with anger-based marketing is that you need a clear enemy—whether it’s a PSA geared at cigarette companies or cause marketing geared at righting some social injustice in the world. But what if the thing to be feared is the worst type of enemy: an unknown one? After all, what we can’t see is always more terrifying than what we can.
In that case, try Norton’s strategy: Empower your audience by ripping off the mask.
There are lots of brands warning businesses and individuals about the importance of cybersecurity and the consequences of being too lax about data security. To sum it up, if a hacker gets hold of your data, you could lose your home, spend years and thousands of dollars in court disputing debt you didn’t rack up, or have your business go bankrupt. And it’s easy for them to do if we don’t take certain precautions.
Norton’s “Most Dangerous Town on the Internet” documentary series brings that reality to life by interviewing real-life hackers and telling their stories—who they are, how they target people, why they target people, and what weaknesses they exploit to do it.
You could certainly make the argument that these films are fear-based marketing. The thought of someone stealing your personal data is way more terrifying than even the spine-tingliest film, if only because the likelihood of identity theft is far greater than being driven mad by a haunted house or killed by a possessed kid, or whatever. But I would argue that Norton actually tackles a frightening topic in an empowering way. It unmasks the big, nameless, faceless enemy called “hackers.”
Think about any slasher film with a masked killer. They are always less horrifying once the mask comes off. Suddenly, they’re not larger-than-life demons. They’re just people—dangerous people with serious mental health issues, but people nonetheless.
We know how to handle people. We can protect ourselves from people. We can get angry at people, and let that anger drive us to take action. (Hey, we’re back full circle.)
Some things in life—and in content marketing—are scary. There’s no getting around it, and even trying to be Little Miss Sunshine about it is insulting to your audience’s intelligence. But you can acknowledge fears without playing them up or playing them down.
Most importantly, if you’re going to go there, be sure to give your audience a way out—and not just tips and tools they can use after you’ve scared them. Heck, if you scared them into flight over fight, they’re no longer reading at that point anyway.
Instead, tell a story that empowers them to take action. Then they’ll not only read your tips, they’ll thank you with their brand loyalty.
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Featured image attribution: Priscilla Du Preez