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Fear appeal is an advertising and marketing strategy that seeks to instill some degree of anxiety in consumers, then offer a means of alleviating that anxiety by purchasing a specific good or service. The use of fear appeal campaigns is common in a number of industries, and has proven to be a highly effective approach to gaining the attention of consumers and creating demand for various products. Over the years, fear appeal ads on television, radio and even print publications have been common. Since the advent of the Internet, these appeals to consumer fears have been used in online advertising, often with success rates very similar to those in other media.
The basic structure of a fear appeal is very simple. The consumer is confronted with a situation in which some type of fear or anxiety is created. Once the scenario is firmly established, the advertising moves on to present the consumer with a solution, usually in the form of a product. Once the product is utilized, the obstacle is removed and the fear no longer exists.
For example, the fear appeal approach is often used with personal hygiene products. Ads convey the idea that if consumers do not use a particular toothpaste or mouthwash, their dingy looking teeth and less than fresh breath will offend people. The fear is that the consumer will become a social outcast, with no friends and no one to spend time with. Should the consumer choose to use the products recommended, his or her teeth will be sparkling white, and the stale breath will suddenly be fresh and inviting. Instead of driving people away, the consumer only has to use the products presented and an active social life is secured.
The same general approach can be used to sell products such as insurance. Providers of health insurance sometimes create advertising that focuses on the high cost of medical care, and include depictions of a family that must sell their home in order to pay medical costs, simply because they did not have health insurance coverage. Companies that sell homeowners insurance may also use ads that depict natural disasters, noting how their insurance product can make the task of rebuilding much easier, especially in comparison to someone who does not have insurance and loses everything they own in a flood or tornado. In most cases, the advertising will end with the obvious solution: buy the product and never have to worry again.
While very effective, fear appeal that is not managed properly can cause consumers to turn away from the products featured in the advertising. In situations where the attempts to instill a degree of anxiety cause the prospective customer to feel intimidated or patronized, the reaction is usually irritation with the advertiser. As a result, the consumer turns away from the product, and seeks other products to meet his or her needs.