Why Audiences Should Fear Your Ads


A baby doll sits with its eyes closed in almost empty room. The walls are white and bare. Opposite the toy is the black box of a PlayStation 3. The doll’s eyes snap open. It gurgles like a baby and reaches towards the console. The doll’s laugh shifts from a baby’s giggle to an adult’s maniacal laugh. Then it releases a scream. Tears flow as fire flashes in the doll’s eyes before the tears roll back. Finally the doll releases a quiet “mama,” and the PlayStation floats off the floor.

As creepy ads go, the first of the three part 2006 advertising campaign for the Sony games console was a chiller.

The content also had little to do with the console’s features. Viewers weren’t shown the spectacular graphics made possible by the console’s technology. We didn’t see immersive gameplay or the collaboration of a multiplayer first person shooter. Instead, we felt an emotional impact.

Buy a PlayStation 3, the commercial said, and you’ll be surprised and terrified. You won’t dare take your eyes off the screen and the hair on the back of your neck will stand up. You’ll be driven to tears then driven back in the opposite direction. There’s nothing you won’t feel.

Even more importantly, though, you won’t want to look away from the commercial. As PlayStation’s marketing chief Peter Dille told Newsweek, “emotion is a big part of the category.” The thought behind the baby ad, which launched the television campaign was, he said, “look at the wide variety of emotions the PlayStation 3 can elicit. The other theme we’re setting up is that the power of the PlayStation 3 is so awesome that anything placed in close proximity is witness to this awesome power. So this baby doll is whipsawed through a gut-wrenching range of emotions, from laughing and crying to reverse crying.”

Looking back at that ad now, when content platforms give viewers a few seconds to decide whether they want to watch the ad or skip it, Sony’s emphasis on emotional engagement over features looked prescient.

To make audiences watch, advertisers have to make them engaged. To make them engaged, they have to make them feel.

But what should audiences feel? What kind of emotions should advertisers push into their content? Should ads lift audiences up or bring them down? Should they shock and surprise, or drop viewers into a warm bath of nostalgia and longing? Should they always make them happy or can ads also be sad and effective.

For years, the advertising industry seemed to know the answer. Brands wanted to be associated with positivity. They wanted people to think good thoughts when they looked at their logos and believe that buying their products would give them that same sense of joy. A new pair of shoes wouldn’t just deliver a way to keep your feet warm and your toes protected on the basketball court. Wearing those shoes would bring the feeling of success and the ecstasy of winning even before you’ve taken a shot.

That’s why the ads we remember most over the years tend to generate the most positive emotions. Think of the optimism of Coca Cola’s Hilltop Ad, the in-crowd chumminess of Budweiser’s “Wassup,” or even the wit of last year’s Superbowl Alexa ad featuring Ellen DeGeneres and Portia Rossi. Those are ads intended to make us feel good, to make us happy, and to generate laughter.

That emphasis is there for a good reason, especially now that we all possess the technology to send an ad to a friend. Jonah Berger, a researcher at Wharton School of Business, has found that provoking positive emotions increases the likelihood that a video will be shared. When you want to get more out of your advertising budget and reach a bigger audience, it pays to be positive—and to make your audience feel positive.

But happiness isn’t the whole picture. Berger also found that even negative emotions can have a positive effect. Sadness reduced the likelihood that a viewer would share an ad but “when an ad provoked a negative activating emotion (i.e., disgust), viewers were also motivated to take action and share the video—even though it didn’t make them feel good,” he wrote.

The question for advertisers though is whether disgust is an emotion they want associated with their product. That feeling is more often reserved for PSA content intended to stop people from buying. Pictures of blackened lungs on the cover of cigarette boxes are supposed to reduce sales, not increase them. Ads for sanitary products, toilet paper, and pharmaceuticals focus on the happiness and comfort that result from their products’ use, not on the bodily functions that the products are designed to help.

Disgust might win social media shares but it’s unlikely to win market share.

But there is one negative activating emotions that could be much more beneficial: fear.

Don’t Be Afraid to Frighten Your Ad Viewers

An article recently published in the Journal of Business Research described a series of experiments that explored the relationship between fear, the perception of creativity, and ad effectiveness. In the first experiment, the researchers, Ilgim Dara Benoit and Elizabeth G. Miller, showed volunteers 162 real public service ads that warned people against the dangers of driving and texting. Each volunteer saw three ads, then rated their attitude to the ad and to the issue; the emotions they felt when they watched the ads; their perception of the persuasiveness of the ads; and their behavioral intention following their viewing (in particular, whether they would still text while driving.)

The researchers found a correlation between high fear ratings, perceived creativity, and behavioral intention. Viewers who found the ads frightening thought those ads were more creative, and were more likely to absorb the message of the ad.

Other negative emotions such as sadness, disgust and anger did not have the same effect.

A similar result was found in a second experiment. This time, the researchers created two ads. Each ad used the same headline and subhead—“Hunger Attack?” and “Attack Back!”—but the call to action differed. One ad urged viewers to donate to a charity combating hunger while the other told people to grab a particular brand of cookie. In order to generate emotional responses of fear, disgust, anger, or a neutral response, the researchers used images of a shark with sharp teeth, a boxer taking a punch, a protestor throwing a rock, and an empty bowl on a table. Volunteers again described their emotional response and rated the ads’ creativity.

Again, the researchers found that participants who rated the ads as frightening also rated those ads as more creative.

The good news for advertisers though is that that appreciation of the creativity of frightening ads also translated into greater willingness to buy. In the third experiment that Benoit and Miller conducted, participants not only rated the ads’ fear factor. They also indicated the dollar price that they would be willing to pay for the product advertised.

Participants who had watched a frightening ad rated the ad as more creative, and they also showed a higher willingness to pay for the product.

In other words, frighten your audience and your market will reach for their wallets.

Benoit and Miller didn’t offer an explanation for the particular power that fear holds over potential buyers in a way that disgust or sadness doesn’t.

For some ads, the power might lie in an association between the emotion itself and the product. One of the Internet’s first shock ads showed a car driving gently down a winding road in a rural landscape. The car disappears behind a clump of trees and as we wait for it to emerge… a zombie leaps into the frame and screams.

Even when you’re expecting it, you still jump. But that green-faced monster is then replaced by the line “Ever been so wide awake?” and a picture of the product: a canned caffeine drink. The sudden effect of the fear is the product the brand is selling.

Few other brands will be lucky enough to have that close an association between the product and a scare. So how should businesses use fear in their marketing?

Frighten the Right People the Right Way

The first step in adding fear to an ad is to know who you’re trying to frighten.

“In order to effectively use fear appeals as a tool to enhance creativity perceptions and ad effectiveness, managers need to test that their chosen instantiation of fear will be perceived as fearful by the target audience,” write Benoit and Miller. “Different target profiles (e.g., age, gender) might be fearful of different scenarios.”

Younger people, they claim, are afraid of death and looking foolish, while older people fear the death of a loved one. Women also fear death and loneliness more than men do.

“Managers should do research to pinpoint the fear(s) their target segment(s) might have, and utilize those to enhance the ad creativity effectiveness.”

So using fear in an ad starts with market research. Identify your audience personas and send out questionnaires that ask people what frightens them the most. Death is likely to turn up pretty high among most groups but if you’re targeting young men then an ad showing social shaming could be more effective than one depicting a dangerous stunt.

But the most effective frightening ads do more than send a chill down an audience’s spine. The sample ad that Benoit and Miller used showed only a shark with sharp teeth. Sony’s baby doll was more complex but also much more disturbing and also more memorable.

So once you’ve identified a fear, take it further. Add humor. A monster can be frightening; a monster shopping for snacks in a grocery store is strange enough to bring audiences into the joke with you.

Or mix fear with another emotion. A picture of a zombie can send a viewer’s heart racing. A zombie jumping out and screaming adds shock to the fear, and is also hackneyed enough to raise a smile.

None of that means that ads shouldn’t also teach the world to sing or churn out a catchphrase that viewers will throw to their friends at parties to raise a laugh. But when you’re building your ad inventory don’t be afraid to turn negative and frighten your audience.

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