The Sledgehammer

BOO! Scared Straight in Healthcare

October 27, 2020

To understand fear-based marketing, we need to understand fear itself. So put on your Dr. Frankenstein costume and let’s do a quick neurobiology refresher!

When you experience emotional stimuli, your amygdala is the first part of the brain that is activated. It evaluates the stimulus (eg, a scary moment in a movie), gauges the right emotional response to it (fear), and triggers the relevant motor functions that could be needed (fight or flight).

In the nanoseconds after that, the signaling of fear travels to the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, where the context of the stimulus is considered (“it’s not real life, silly”) and the threat is evaluated (low/non-existent). That new information routes back to our amygdala, suppressing our emotional response and triggering the corresponding motor functions (“chill out, you’re fine”).

What this tells us (other than that the brain is amazing) is that the evaluation of and response to fear relies on how realistic the threat is. If you were to experience that same scary moment while alone in a dark alley, there is more likelihood of a threat and thus the brain might tell the body to scream or run.

It also tells us why fear-based marketing can be highly effective—if you present someone with a scary proposition and they do recognize it as a threat, it can result in actions to avoid that outcome.

But achieving the right balance of scary stimulus and meaningful threat is crucial:

  • If the stimulus is too much of a deterrent, your audience’s focus shifts to avoiding the stimulus at all costs. Example: this ad that equates drinking soda to drinking pure fat was viewed by many as being extremely gross. Thus, the audience is more likely to want to stop watching the ad versus hanging around to evaluate the threat.
  • If the stimulus isn’t strong enough, then the audience won’t take it seriously. Example: this Australian PSA warning teens against marijuana usage attempted to deter them by showing them how it could make them “sloth-like.” The problem: the sloth they used to depict the behavior was so goofy that it wasn’t taken seriously.

And on the other side of the equation:

  • If the threat isn’t relevant, then the scary stimulus falls flat. Example: a research study analyzed a campaign intended to deter drunk driving through the use of graphic images of car crashes. It found that the campaign was effective with every audience except the one that is most likely to drive while under the influence: young males. The stimulus just didn’t create enough of an emotional response with that demographic.

While these cautionary tales may tempt you to run screaming away from fear-based marketing, there are also plenty of examples of how powerful the message can be when campaigns are able to strike the right balance.

“Meningitis B” — Trumenba

This campaign does an excellent job of grabbing attention upfront with a parent’s worst fear: their child, incredibly sick in a hospital. Rewinding through the events leading up to that moment, the audience sees the tragedy unfold and eventually witnesses the small and innocent everyday ways in which the meningitis B virus was transmitted. As a result, the threat feels real and the fear is legitimized—creating motivation to vaccinate and avoid a similar fate.

“Tips from Former Smokers” — Centers for Disease Control

The most interesting thing about this crusade against cigarettes is that it disguises its intent with a seemingly helpful and friendly offering: here are some tips. But then the small horrors slowly unfold and the audience sees what fate can await a smoker. The PSA never goes into potentially deterrent territory (“smoking kills”) and instead just shows how it can dramatically alter life.

“Switch” — Apple

Not all fear-based marketing has to be horrifying. In this simple spot from Apple’s “Switch” campaign, the security of a smartphone is clearly contrasted: if you don’t have an Apple phone, you’re at risk for security breaches. If you do have one, you’re fine.

“Stop Wasting Money on…” — WordStream

Fear-based appeals can also be effective in simple marketing copy. WordStream, a company focused on paid search and social advertising, tested two different text-based ads:

An ad with a fear-generating headline:

And an ad with a more positive headline:

The fearful headline generated a conversion rate 18.8% higher than the positive one. Why? AdWords and paid search can be complex, and many marketers likely don’t feel entirely confident that they’re doing a great job. So WordStream leaned into that fear and reminded them of the highly undesirable threat of wasting money.

As you can see, fear-based marketing doesn’t have to be all Freddy Krueger and Friday the 13th. When done correctly, it can be a powerful way to use an actionable insight to motivate behavior. So uncover your eyes and face your fears—your next marketing tactic just might be down that dark alley. Muahahahahaha

At any given time, there are 200+ actual sledgehammers present in the Heartbeat office. To celebrate their first year on the team, each HB’er receives their very own sledge—a nod to our daily pursuit of tearing down tiresome healthcare marketing. To determine what is built in its place, we often turn to outside industries, cultural forces, and personal experiences. We eagerly share them with one another, and now we’re sharing them with you.