Sometimes advertising is like doing arts and crafts as a kid. Sensations everywhere, boundless creativity and fun. It’s a good feeling! It meshes together the paper and scissors in a way you never thought possible. But sometimes advertising is your mum telling you to be very careful with those scissors. You feel nervous and sick as she tells you the legend of a boy who got them stuck in his leg, and something you barely thought about – those scissors – are now potentially a threat to your life. Or at least your leg. 

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The pursuit of pleasure has long been the domain of advertising, but so too has the avoidance of pain. These two very basic feelings are the premise of all advertising, and it’s unlikely to ever change. The pleasure of being cool, of being attractive, of being safe. The fear of exclusion, of sickness, or stagnation. We’re all susceptible to it. The beauty of marketing and ad campaigns is reaching just the right balance to guide consumers to your business. However, it’s a fine line, and far closer to an art than a science. If it wasn’t hard enough, there’s a long history of life insurance ads showing positive families together, while technology companies have relied on a fear of missing out to carry the weight of their adverts. It’s not as simple as different industries using one tactic over the other. However, there are some crucial general tips, which can help keep your campaign fresh while avoiding the pitfalls of Pepsi and beyond.

So, here are some tips for managing the use of fear in your campaign.

Don’t lose the message

A good tip for all advertising, but specifically for campaigns that are using pain or fear to motivate. Keeping track of the message is crucial to ensuring your campaign isn’t lost on anyone. The rule of thumb is that if a viewer can’t name what the service or product was a minute after watching it, it’s too vague. The focus should still be on what you can offer. You don’t want the focus of your ad to be on the scary thing rather than what you’re offering. It should be obvious what your product or service is, and without linking it too strongly to the fear factor in your campaign. The last thing you need is for the shock of the ad to overrule what you’re trying to sell.

Historically this has been pertinent to health campaigns, with some ads having used massive shock to highlight danger and concern. The jarring Worksafe ads of the early 2010s – part of the ‘it doesn’t hurt to speak up’ campaign – are the extreme of fear in advertising (viewer discretion advised). But even Worksafe, both before and after this campaign, pivoted towards a happier ending in their ads to encourage change and motivation, rather than fear and shock. More recently, recent vaccination campaigns created controversy by dominating with fear, leading to worse outcomes than before.

Scale it appropriately

Fear is potent, and it only takes a small dose to get the message across. There’s a broad spectrum of messaging that uses scare tactics, from the aforementioned Worksafe ads to goofy ‘you don’t want to miss out’ style ads. All can make an impact when used properly. Many ads make use of just a hint of negativity which, despite a positive resolution, helps guide viewers’ choices. Scary ads often end positively, allowing for an emotional reprieve at the end and associating your business with safety and relief. The main identifier here is the ‘lame’ character in an ad that misses out on a cool new product. Be it phone, drink or handbag – just a hint of fear of missing out (FOMO) can be enough to help ads pack a punch. On the flip side, aiming to shame or embarrass a potential consumer is a dangerous path to tread. Hope for change is just as important as the reason to change, and the last thing you want is for viewers to come away from campaign exposure with no desire to change anything, and feeling worse about themselves.

Keep it relatable

Keep it real, and keep it human. Fear is a powerful emotion, but it’s pointless if it doesn’t aim anyone in the right direction. Help to make fear personal and realistic by giving it a sense of person, such as through using a real-life story or by having characters. One example of this is the use of ‘survivors’ to warn viewers of health concerns, such as campaigns around skin cancer. By showing photos and interviewing family members, the fear becomes relatable enough to move viewers towards change – in this case, using sunscreen and getting check-ups. 

An example of what not to do can be found with Pepsi’s controversial commercial back in 2019. Anyone with an active Twitter account will remember just how well that one was received. The ad featured Victoria’s Secret model and Kardashian celebrity Kendall Jenner strutting across what seems to be a racial justice protest to calm things down with a can of Pepsi. A flawed for many reasons, not least how tone-deaf it was, but the icing on the cake is the separation Jenner has from racial protests. Her life of celebrity and luxury worked against the backdrop of passionate protesters fighting against severe inequality – something that Jenner is a world away from.

Interested in more about how this works? Check out our other blogs, and the rest of our website, to see what we can do for you. The Jasper Picture Company is one of Melbourne’s leading videography companies, and we’ve got the expertise and experience to deliver the video that you need. Best of all, we’ll avoid Kendall and her harmonious Pepsi cans.

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