Scare tactics: How the pandemic has influenced fear-based marketing
Fear sells, but it's not always obvious – and it doesn't always work. Dr Paul Harrison explains why.
In marketing terms, fear covers a broad spectrum of messages. It can range from the memorable Grim Reaper AIDS campaign in the 80s through to sales signs and messages saying "last chance" or "don't miss out".
Some ads won't necessarily have this type of wording, but will tend to portray fear in different ways: showing something aspirational that could give people temporary comfort against the fears.
Recently in Australia, we've had both extremes: the federal government's controversial vaccine campaign is an example of blunt-force fear marketing, while ads on Instagram and other social networks offer bright antidotes to lockdowns and the unsettling uncertainty of the pandemic.
The way fear is used in public and commercial campaigns can affect us in different ways, so it's worth taking a closer look at each of these so we can work out ways to deal with them.
Fear in public health campaigns (and that vaccine ad)
So many people, at nearly every public health conference I've ever been to bring up the Grim Reaper ad for AIDS when trying to address behaviour change. But, on its own, it wasn't as effective as people seem to think and it caused many problems for already disenfranchised groups, particularly the gay community.
It did raise awareness about AIDS, but it also reinforced prejudice and may have even had a negative effect among the community that it was designed for.
This is often the case with fear campaigns. In research that I conducted with colleagues at The Open University in the UK, we found that fear campaigns can often lead to the target market responding defensively and rejecting the message.
Despite this, the Grim Reaper campaign is held up as one of the most effective public health campaigns and has influenced a lot of other fear-based campaigns and continues to influence amateur psychologists when they are dreaming up behaviour change programs.
It's probably what the federal government was trying to do in its recent campaign that showed a young woman in hospital with COVID-19, struggling to breathe. If you look closely enough (which I do), it even had a similar colour palette as the Grim Reaper campaign.
But it is unlikely to work for a whole bunch of reasons.
First, research tells us that any behaviour change campaign has to give people an opportunity to solve that fear. While it is clear that the intention of the ad was attempting to create an environment of fear so that people would get the vaccination, this is not the most effective way to do this.
That said, even if it did create fear, the intended outcome wasn't achievable by the targeted group. At the time, most people under 40 were not eligible to get vaccinated with the recommended vaccine for their age group. It was disingenuous to run the campaign when supply wasn't available and could have been interpreted as a form of scapegoating of younger cohorts, without any way for them to respond.
The other problem is that this campaign came out over a year after the pandemic started.
But what we know from research that fear campaigns, combined with an educational campaign can have an effect early on, at the beginning of a public health issue, but they are less effective as time plays out. But as a phenomenon evolves and changes, you see the emergence of different segments: people who know a lot, people who don't know a lot and people who need information.
So the messaging needs to change and address the complexity of these segments. The message of this COVID campaign simply didn't do that.
Fear-based sales tactics
If public health campaigns that use fear are blunt instruments, fear-based advertising is a more sophisticated tool and is often much more successful.
One of the keys, which we talked about before, is that it's always goal-oriented.
So we talk a lot about people trying to achieve goals and sometimes those goals aren't conscious to us.
For example, we don't know that we are worried about where we fit in our social circle, what our social status is – until an ad campaign reminds us.
Most ad campaigns are about pointing out the gap between your actual self and your desires. So that's where the fear comes in.
Things like activating sale scarcity does have an effect if you are already consciously or unconsciously willing to purchase that product.
But it's so much more complicated than frightening people. And that's why it's important to segment within a campaign – it's not enough to have just one mass marketing ad trying to speak to everyone.
Sophisticated marketing programs spend a substantial amount of time trying to understand the values and goals of the target markets.
So, for example, in the context of getting someone to buy an electric car, one segment might be driven predominantly by a concern for the natural environment and maybe a little less by their public image. So, you would design an overall marketing campaign (not just advertising) that would focus on these elements. But that wouldn't mean that all consumers want to buy an electric car for these reasons.
The key in any behaviour change program, whether you are trying to get people to take up vaccination or buy an electric car, is to try to deeply understand what drives actual behaviour.
And sadly, asking them is not always the best way to do this. People are not good at reflective thinking and understanding what actually drives their behaviour.
The pandemic influence
What's happened with the pandemic is that we've got into a cycle of repetition for a general message or tone, which is "being afraid".
What ends up happening is that we become bored and used to the message, so we switch off because we need to preserve our own wellbeing. Or we look for the things that we can control – that's part of the reason panic buying became such an issue last year.
Basically, if you're afraid and you're told that there's this big, scary, unpredictable virus out there you ask yourself (unconsciously), "Okay, so what can I control? I can control what's going on in my household, I can control what I buy".
This is also an explanation for why so many of us are scrolling through Instagram or Facebook and buying up big. For a short moment, we can imagine an alternative life through the things that we can buy.
As my very wise daughter said to me a few years ago when we were going through a difficult time, "we are trying to solve our existential angst through the prism of capitalism". In other words, buying stuff makes us feel good... for a little bit.
Whether it's intentional or not, what marketers do is capitalise on the psychological and social fears that we all have.
As marketing becomes more sophisticated with its targeting, more psychological end-states are being considered when designing campaigns. You may have already noticed this yourself in your own social media feeds.
While the ads you are receiving may miss the mark most of the time, AI and neural networking is able to track sentiment in populations, then design interventions (ads) that hit the mark more and more often.
As an exercise, I often suggest that people do a systematic audit of their Instagram feed. As you are scrolling through your social media, take a look at the types of ads that you are being given and ask yourself, "what's the pattern here?" But be methodical about it – try to note all the ads, not just the ones that appeal.
And if you're feeling overwhelmed by advertising or watching daily press conferences and checking the case numbers – switch off. Or find another way to feel better: call a friend, go for a walk, cook or watch TV…whatever makes you feel better.
As told to Amy Bradney-George.
Dr Paul Harrison is the deputy director and marketing lead in the Deakin Business School MBA program, director of The Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing and a senior lecturer at Deakin University. He researches, consults and advises government, industry and NGOs predominantly in the field of consumer behaviour and marketing.
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Images: Getty Images, supplied (Paul Harrison)