The Examples Of ‘Fear Appeal’ In Advertising -Emotional Branding.

Listerine was launched in the 1880s as an antiseptic liquid mainly meant for application on wounds or areas likely to be infected. One important area where it could be applied was to clean infections in the human mouth — A delicate and constantly wet area, where the other creams, bandages won’t work. Listerine was marketed to dentists for this reason. Though the product had potential, it could not penetrate the market and was always on the edge of survival till the 1920s.

In the 1920s, Listerine decided to change their communication -they targeted fear psychology of consumers — Listerine focussed on one fear — Human Relationships — halitosis — BAD BREATH.

They changed their ads as

Their video ads ran like this -

Look at this, Martin’s have been happily married for years, but something has gone wrong these days….Halitosis or Bad Breath is no help to a happy home……

Jane has a pretty face, Men notice her lovely figure, but men never linger along. Jane has one big minus in her report card-Halitosis or Bad Breath …..

And the Listerine Brand took off …..Sales quadrupled.

Quaker Oats was a pioneer in many marketing, advertisement techniques — Quaker Oats 1917 Ad — Focussing on fear psychosis — Food scarcity, Health, Not being energetic

Quaker Oats in 1899 advertisement — Targeting the fear of child’s development

Tooth-paste — In the late 1920s, a new brand was fighting tooth and nail to gain market share -Pepsodent — They too targeted fear psychosis — The team targeted the tooth’s cloudy film. The fact was that this same naturally occurring membrane film has always covered people’s teeth(regardless of what you eat and how often you brush) all the time and had not bothered anyone. (Anybody could remove the film by running your finger over the teeth or rigorously swirling the water around your mouth) and the team told consumers that this film was the one that made tooth appear dull, ugly and invited decay.

In one of the ads, Pepsodent says, “Millions of women are using the new method of teeth cleansing and you could see the pretty teeth everywhere.Why would any woman have dingy film on her teeth? Use Pepsodent” — The brand used “Social Proof — Fear” psychology technique too.

Pepsodent for children — Neglect them and your child may pay the penalty in later life …

Another brand threatening the women ….How worse could a brand go?

“The concept of a product/service had simply changed from those early days — A product simply meeting the needs of a consumer would not survive in the long run- The product or service should evolve to meet user’s changing aspiration — His or her aspiration is to overcome fears and the greed present in his or her mind. (A user’s choice of food is not just for nutrition — He wants to be in control of his own health, his confidence, presentation of himself to others).”

Every human is controlled by two masters — Greed and Fear. Once the basic needs of a customer are met, brands are forced to target ‘consumer emotions’ in order to have a sustainable competitive advantage. Businesses that target Greed or Desires sell premium or luxury products/services. A business that targets Fear sells “Control over their own life”. Out of all the emotions, fear sells better. It is a powerful motivator. Fear is part of our automatic mind and at times, it is out of control of our rational mind.

Brands, these days, communicate the fear inexplicitly. Direct communication does not help. Brand offerings are no more communicated in terms of saved money or earned money or in terms of wasted time or more free time, but simply in terms of ‘more control’ and ‘less chaos’ in life.

Keep in mind that there are different types of fear — Brands target multiple fears or focus on a single fear — The general consumer fears are a)fear of not being able to stand out from the crowd, unique identity, b)fear of future — They would like to perceive future better than the past, c)fear of dependency- need to act independently, freedom, d)overcoming the fears of height or any other limitation -thrills, e) fear of conflicts, threats, f) fear of not belonging to a group, community, g) fear of environmental safety, h) fear of failures, i) fear of missing out, j) peer pressure.

Horlicks claims that they make children grow taller, do better at schoolwork, become faster at sports and stronger -indirectly customizing the product on parent’s fears.

Bournvita — There is a belief that the taller you are, the easier the life is. Brands target this ‘fear of peer pressure” in children.

Baby safety helmet for toddlers — a decade back, we never had a product like this. The material also needs to be organic — Organic, healthy, sustainability — So, the bamboo material is used to build the helmet.

Baby Oil, Baby Soap, Baby shampoo, Baby powder, Baby Band-aid — everything indirectly targets fear. Pampers changed their communication from ‘dryness’ ‘Snug Fit’ to ‘Good sleep for baby’ and ‘Sound health for baby’ — the major fear/concerns of a mother.

Toothpaste category — Colgate has too many varieties — building on every consumer fear in that segment — Freshness, Stronger teeth, Fresh breath, Whiter teeth, fighting Cavities, germs, healthy gums, plaque, tartar, gingivitis, stain, longer hours protection, sensitivity(Fear of not able to eat cold or hot items), enamel protection, enamel repair, sugar acids, sweet tooth. It appears that Colgate focusses on the ‘next fear’ than the ‘next need’.

Febreze targeted the fear of clothes smelling bad even after washing — Air fresheners targeted the fear of smell inside the home — Bathroom cleaners, Vessel cleaners, Sanitizers do not talk about cleaning anymore, but about the killing of germs. Their communications have changed.

Vacuum cleaners indirectly focus their product features on consumer’s fears — lengthy cord, 360-degree rotation to avoid knee, wrist, hand, back pains, cleaning corners, cleaning steps, protection system to avoid scratching or damaging floors, walls, doors, servicing, cleaning.

Warranties — Brands make more money through extended warranties and annual maintenance contracts — A business thrives on fear. A water purifier costs around Rs.20000 and an AMC of Rs.5000 per year. Most of the products provide a 2-year warranty and an extended warranty of an additional two years and the probability of component failure is very minimal during those periods. Extended warranties are a major additional revenue source for many retailers and brands.

Athletic shoe manufacturers target the fear of causing injury to the foot.

Skin care and anti-ageing products target the fear of growing old — They could locate new fears — Dry Skin, Age Spots, Uneven skin tones, Appearance of skin.

Wellness products, Organic natural products targeting the fear of unhealthy lifestyle.

Mobile phone brands targeting the “Fear of Missing Out” by introducing the local languages in communication. Facebook, Whatsapp target the same fear.

FedEx’s advertisements earlier targeted fear of package arriving safely, arriving on time. Now, these are not fears anymore — One of their recent ads is targeting the fears of small businesses, e-commerce.

Everyone is fearful of something — Part of every purchase made by the consumer is based on some sort of fear. It does not matter what product or service you are selling, you can still tap ‘Fear’ emotion to increase your market share, or launch a new variant or add new value proposition of your product/service.

What Kind of fear should we target?

Small to Medium Threat, Recurrent Incident, Limited Consequence“Slovic et al published an article in 1977. He states, “People buy more insurance if the events have a moderately high probability of inflicting a relatively small loss than against a low probability of inflicting a higher loss”. Consumers can be easily influenced by the high probability of a hazard than by the magnitude of the consequences. People are not inclined to protect themselves against very low probability threats. “

The product examples mentioned above all have a high probability of happening, but consequences are of lesser magnitude — We could convince people easily, nudge them to try our products. In all the above examples, fear may appear unwarranted or the fear would not create major consequences. Most of us go for extended warranties on buying a new car, but the failure rate of any components are rare and breakdown may happen one in every thousand cars. Take the example of mosquito liquid repellents — I do not know whether it works effectively. But most of us use them. We keep buying refills. It is mostly used in places where mosquitoes are fewer in numbers. Even if you get dengue, you cannot go and sue them, as they would blame the environment. You rely on this product when the magnitude of fear is minimal or manageable.

Rogers’ Protection Motivation Theory (1975) proposes that people protect themselves based on four factors: the perceived severity of a threatening event, the perceived probability of the occurrence, or vulnerability, the efficacy of the recommended preventive behaviour, and the perceived self-efficacy. As we have seen earlier, the threat we choose should have small to medium severity, and the perceived frequency of occurrence could be high — Example for the frequency of occurrence, every night we need to face mosquitoes, every 8–10 hours you would feel a film on your teeth.

Coping with the Threat — To make users cope with the threat — we need to design a product or service that is trouble-free, comfortable, uncomplicated, familiar to use (the perceived self-efficacy) and make it easily available, accessible. (availability of coping response(The solution — product or service)).

Triggers — We need some fear triggers in the environment so that we could make consumer link our product to the situation — Example, the film over teeth in the case of Pepsodent, the fear of dengue, malaria diseases(reports in media) in the case of mosquito liquid repellents, dry skin, spots in the case of skincare and the list could go on.

Traditional marketing advises you to “Find a need and fill it.” Now, “if you are not able to find the need, then discover the next fear or threat in your consumer’s mind.

Conclusion — Targeting fear, brands build long-term relationships. Example, brands use extended warranties to remain in touch with the customers, help future repurchases, build a loyal customer base, strengthen brand image — sometimes, it is a win-win situation for both customers and the brand.

Lea Dunn and JoAndrea Hoegg in Journal Of Consumer research wrote, “Interpersonal research has shown that when people feel scared, they are more likely to seek out an affiliation with others (Sarnoff and Zimbardo 1961; Schachter 1959). For example, individuals who experience a fearful event together (e.g., a natural disaster, terrorist act, etc.) display solidarity and group cohesion and demonstrate stronger attachments with those who were present during the experience (Fried 1963; Moore 1958; Tyhurst 1951). If the experience of fear can lead to emotional attachments to other individuals, it may also be that it can lead to emotional attachments to brands”. Consumers who feel a strong attachment to a brand will be more loyal and less price sensitive.


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References — The power of habit by Charles Duhigg, article by Tom Oakley from, Articles by Slovic et al, The New Science of Customer Emotions by Scott Magids, Alan Zorfas, and Daniel Leemon, Impact of brand on emotional attachment by Lea Dunn and JoAndrea Hoegg,, Playing to win by AG Lafley, Nudge by Richard Thaler, Do It Marketing By David Newman.

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at or