What is a Fear Appeal?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

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.

A mouthwash maker might try to make consumers worry that not using the product could make them unattractive.
A mouthwash maker might try to make consumers worry that not using the product could make them unattractive.

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.

An insurance company might use tornado images as a form of fear appeal.
An insurance company might use tornado images as a form of fear appeal.

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.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


@pleonasm - As far as I'm concerned the main problem with this is not that they necessarily use fear as motivation. I think that is fairly inevitable.

It's that they skew results in order to really push that fear. I think that should be illegal. There are so many scientific studies that have been funded by companies with something to gain by particular results and there's no way for the average person to tell whether or not the results are trustworthy.

If a company that sells diet pills funds a study that happens to say that obesity is a killer and their pills work really well, can you really trust that result? Because there have been quite a few studies that show moderate obesity isn't actually a big killer. It's the stress from dieting that can kill.

But the guys who sell the diet pills have no reason to reveal that.

If they want to use fear to sell, then that's one thing. Sometimes money can buy security. But lying about it is basically evil.


@croydon - I don't know if weight-loss is the best example though. 50 years ago there wasn't such a large obesity epidemic going on and that really is something to be afraid of if you are overweight.

I know this is about using the power of persuasion to get people to buy, rather than being done in their best interests, but I don't actually see that there is a moral issue. If they have no reason to be afraid, then the advertisement isn't going to work. If they do, then maybe it will help.


This kind of advertising makes me so angry because it just gets taken too far. I understand that they are trying to make an emotional appeal but when children and vulnerable people get given message after message telling them they aren't good enough on their own, eventually they will believe it, even if they buy all the products in the world.

It's particularly bad for women because it ties into the whole anti-aging industry and the weight-loss industry. If you ever really analyze the wording on those ads they make it sound like your life and happiness depends on buying a particular product or service. It's funny how 50 years ago the product didn't exist and everyone was just fine and dandy without it.

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