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Fear-Based Marketing: Send The Right Message

Marketing appeals to two basic human instincts: the production of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. 

How do we use emotions to appeal to our audiences?
These desires are what drive us to take most of our actions in our daily life. From an instinctual level, we eat food to avoid the discomfort of hunger. We talk to our friends to chase the good feeling of human connection. While many campaigns appeal to production of pleasure, fear-based marketing focuses on avoidance of pain.


Marketing strategies addressing the ‘production of pleasure’ instinct have an innately positive style. They promote convenience, self-growth, beauty, protection, and a general increase in quality of life. These messages paint pictures of happy families and personal prosperity. Appealing to these positive emotions is a widely-used promotion strategy, because who doesn’t love a warm fuzzy feeling?

Marketing that addresses ‘avoidance of pain’ convey a different message entirely. Avoidance of pain messages can evoke fear or embarrassment, or even shame. Picture any Febreze commercial. The message is “don’t let your friends and family know how dirty and smelly your house can be.” Though these emotions are innately negative, strong results from pain avoidance messages prove it is a successful marketing strategy.

As marketers, appealing to the emotions of viewers and potential customers is our main objective. But there are ways to achieve this goal successfully, and more importantly – ethically. 

The damage of fear-mongering on social media 

Improper use of fear-based marketing can be detrimental. At the very least, it can hurt your brand reputation. At most, it can negatively affect society’s mindset. 

Intense online fear-mongering strategies can be connected to upticks in racial profiling and discrimination. For example, there has been recent popularity in ‘neighborhood watch’ apps. These apps allow users to view recorded thefts in real-time and discuss with their community. The promotion surrounding these products and apps lead to a false sense that danger is on the rise when in actuality, crime rates are the lowest they’ve been in decades. The constant promotion of and attention to these apps have developed this false fear in the public, especially surrounding people of color.

“ Apps didn’t create bias or unfair policing, but they can exacerbate it” – This is online fear-based marketing in action.

How to ethically engage viewers on social media using an ‘avoidance of pain’ message

UNDERSTAND THE SPECIFIC AND CURRENT PAIN POINTS OF YOUR AUDIENCE 

Don’t try to create or invent new fear within your customers. Understand what your audience’s current (and legitimate) fears and concerns are, and open a discussion about a fix. If you have a good product, the real pain-points it addresses will be enough.

Download our checklist of 30+ ways to promote content here.

However, you aren’t finished the second you address the concerns of your market. You need to empathize with your audience, make sure your company is reachable, and talk to find solutions. The message you are sending is essentially:

‘We know that is hard to fix, but we are here to help. Here is how…’

IF APPEALING TO FEAR, USE CLEAR AND HONEST STATISTICS OVER FAKE STORYLINES 

Using statistics over fake scenarios creates an impactful message without taking advantage of the viewer’s imagination. With statistics, it’s possible to use a positive ‘be prepared’ Call To Action, while still instilling that sense of urgency to reach out.

Example: in 2017, 1 in 15 people fell victim to identity theft. Take these steps to protect your personal information today.

DO NOT BASE YOUR FEAR-BASED STRATEGIES AROUND ONE DEMOGRAPHIC OR GROUP OF PEOPLE 

This tip should be a no-brainer, but ostracizing entire demographics of people for financial or political gain can be found online daily. Whether it is outright or indirect, fear-mongering around a specific group will create lasting damage to all involved parties and does absolutely nothing positive for the reputation of a brand.

APPEAL TO THE AVOIDANCE OF PAIN WITH HUMOR OVER FEAR 

There are creative ways to appeal to ‘avoidance of pain’ marketing without actually evoking negative emotions in the viewer. Sometimes, the best way to a viewers brain is through their funny bone. If a message can be conveyed with humor, it cuts through the negative emotions involved while still keeping the value clear.

Example: The Mayhem commercials by Geico do a great job of conveying the importance of insurance during disastrous situations while still making the viewer chuckle.

OFFER SPECIFIC STEPS TO TAKE TO FIX THE ISSUE 

What is the point of addressing concerns without offering a clear solution? All messaging, fear-based or not, should have a clear and simple Call To Action to reconcile any fears highlighted. Make sure information to the solution is readily available to anyone who views your promotions and content.

“Worried about ____? Take this quiz to find a simple custom solution.”

Fear-based marketing tactics have strong reactions – both positive and negative. Make sure the message you put out to your audience is supportive, ethical, and action-oriented.

Want to talk to experts on sending the right message on social media? Reach out now!

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