Ideas that go bump in the night: Using fear to motivate your audience

You look like a zombie. The door is locked, the blinds are down and there's a cushion to cover your eyes.

Fear can be a powerful motivator in creative campaigns, argues Claire Bridges
Fear can be a powerful motivator in creative campaigns, argues Claire Bridges

Who knows what terrors wait if you answer the phone that just won’t stop ringing? Not a pitch-from-hell all-nighter, you’re settled in for a horror film fright-fest.

It sounds slightly ludicrous, perhaps – scaring the bejesus out of your audience to boost sales?

But the director of every horror movie made does exactly that. Cinema-goers have few qualms about ‘self-scaring’ in the name of entertainment, with the genre as popular as ever.

Halloween presents us with an opportunity to consider how to use fear to motivate your audience.

Decades of research tell us that emotionally engaging campaigns have more efficacy than rational messages alone.

And historically, for consumer marketing positive emotions have been our go-to.

However when the big boys like P&G research moving beyond raising a smile, it’s worth digging deeper.

Using fear in public health campaigns is a well-trodden path. Drink too much booze, you’ll end up sick or die.

Drink and drive, you’ll wreck lives; eat too much salt and you might have a stroke. Those ghoulish images on cigarette packaging are intended to shock and scare us.

Yet there’s ongoing debate about the efficacy of these fear-fuelled campaigns.

The insurance industry relies on our fear of what might happen – consider the tens of thousands who have purchased ‘alien abduction’ policies.

All of these approaches tap into what psychologists term 'away from' motivation.

As Don Draper puts it in Mad Men: "Advertising is based on one thing – happiness. And do you know what happiness is? ...It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK."

But using fear needn’t mean going to white-knuckle extremes.

We’re all familiar with ‘FOMO’ – the niggling feeling fuelled by social media that we’re missing out– and it can be used to encourage people to act:

• Time-based FOMO uses enforced urgency - act now! With tactics including flash sales, ’10 people are browsing this hotel now’ banners and ‘pop-up’ anything. Black Friday being the ultimate example.

• Scarcity FOMO using the fear of (perceived) rarity or shortage is a classic PR tactic – 'limited edition', anyone? Waiting lists for the latest fashion 'must have' and Amazon’s ‘only 5 left in stock’ messages leverage the strategy that the diamond industry uses to keep prices sky-high for an item that has no practical use for the average person.

Burger King’s much-lauded #ScaryClownNight, with the invitation to ‘come as a clown, eat like a king’ offered free Whoppers to those who came dressed in terrifying outfits on Halloween last year.

Controversially tapping into the killer clown craze, the brand started a deliberate bunfight with the market leader, helping the brand punch well above its weight.

Using fear to persuade and motivate your audience clearly requires handling with care.

You could try introducing a less obvious emotion like curiosity, anger, surprise or awe as a lens through which to spark ideas, or act as a counterpoint.

Let’s face it, indifference to our work is as gruesome as any horror movie.

Claire Bridges is the founder of Now Go Create

Thumbnail image ©GettyImages

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