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Scare Tactics : ‘Fear’ as a Successful Communications Tool

Scare Tactics : ‘Fear’ as a Successful Communications Tool


The value of emotion in selling products, and papers, is more or less indubitable.

Christmas: every advert pulls on the heartstrings. Headlines about fairness and altruism pepper the pages of our newspapers.

February: roses are red, violets are blue and romance is in the air for every marketing campaign and headline that can possibly squeeze in an iota of an excuse for doing so.

Yet this is not just a gimmick of once-a-year holidays. It is a strategic part of brand narratives from McDonald’s to Nike, Virgin to Jack Wills.

And one of the most effective emotions is fear.

Take as an example the full-sized polar bear released in London this past January. It disrupted tube-commuters’ usual routine of ‘studiously minding own business and ensuring zero eye contact with anyone’ with a potential panic attack.

“Is it real?!” People begged the cameras recording their mixed reactions of fear and curiosity.

Twitter went crazy. Videos and photos spread across the Internet.

As a stunt it grabbed headlines – partly because a giant white bear on the Jubilee line makes a great photo – but it also embodied the new television show it was publicising, Fortitude, by using a bear that is something of a sinister motif for danger in the show to create a similar threatened feeling in the British public.  Moreover, considering Sky’s current adverts saying ‘not all television is created equal’, which suggests their programmes are somewhat more challenging, more intriguing, this stunt certainly seemed to capture hearts and minds with a comparable emotive thread.

An ‘Emotion Factor’ constitutes a central part of helping a consumer to bond with a brand, a business, a product, a person.

Hardly a new concept, Dale Carnegie identified emotions as key for business people who want to appeal to their customers back in 1936 and it has been the linchpin in communications of all kinds ever since. There are books dedicated to it, and academic studies.

Those who have never watched Mad Men might be forgiven for wondering then why I’m talking about fear. Almost everyone has been told sex sells as demonstrated by Davidoff cologne or Virgin Atlantic adverts. Many will have experienced how feeling empowered makes that totally unaffordable car sound like a good idea, or how humour makes one website seem simpler and friendlier than the other.

But to quote Don Draper: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? … It’s freedom from fear.”

The same applies to building a narrative in public relations.

Telling a story for a business is an integral part of PR because it’s all about looking for the story that will bring a brand’s message to life. A story can build or bulldoze a reputation, manage or frustrate consumers. So whether it’s through a message, a logo, a CEO or even a product, telling a superficial tale is not going to win over a busy journalist or capture the attention of a digital audience. Only a quality, sophisticated story can do that. Preferably one that’s succinct and can fit into the required column inches.

This is where fear comes in. Good stories need an element of fear.  Something for a hero to overcome. That hero might be the consumer or the product or the business as a whole. But if all is happiness, simplicity, friendliness, and humour, what’s the point in being a hero, of wanting more than this? How can you feel powerful driving that car, or sexy travelling on that flight, or clever because you chose this brand, if there’s nothing to fear?

Nike does this well, painting the consumer as both hero and villain. Their base, lazy-self doesn’t want to wake up, to run, to push up that hill. Can their strong, inner hero win out? Yes, they can. Likewise, the anti-bank narrative taken up by new financial technology (fintech) companies often paint themselves as ‘Jack’ characters going up against fearsome ‘Giants’. A traditional story becomes a strategy rooted in the potential to conquer fear.

By identifying what seems scary, the opportunity to expose ways to overcome the monster emerges. This encourages people to believe in the story, to come to their own conclusions and hopefully align their opinions with that of the brand. Since they value this self-made deduction more than those shoved down their throats, the business’ story then becomes their story. Loyalty is created. A reputation with consumers established.

Crucially different from the fear inspired by some political propaganda or scaremongering, it’s important to note that this kind of fear is also distinct from manipulation. Using fear is not a way of coercing consumers into falling for a web of lies.  It is, however, a means of a business connecting on a human level with the people it needs to connect with and a way of cohering a brand with both left-brain ideas and right-brain emotions.

So whether it’s by tapping into the fear of missing out, the reality of heart disease, the creepiness of unseen germs, or just the Very Dangerous World – businesses need to really start thinking about what people fear and what story they want to tell in the age of anxiety.

The rise and fall of reality TV

Over the last couple of decades, the nation has been enthralled by the phenomenon of reality TV. The idea of watching real people, doing real things, live on television was an idea that has fascinated and captured the majority of us.

The genre first started with The Real World in 1992, a program which ran on MTV looking into the lives of a group of people aged 18–25, usually representing different races, genres and sexual orientations. It wasn’t until the launch of Cilla Black’s Blind Date, however, that reality TV really kicked off and this was then followed by Big Brother and Survivor, both of which were not only global successes but became global franchises spawning dozens of countries around the world.

It’s no surprise the world became obsessed with these shows. They allow us to feel emotions and connect with people from the comfort of our own homes and in the company of our friends and family. They make us laugh, cry and even celebrate and the industry cleverly responded to this by launching more and more new programs following the same theme but with a different twist each year.

Reality TV figures are dwindling.

Over the past few years, it appears the magic has started to fade, however, as the TV ratings of some of the biggest and most popular reality shows continue to fall. X Factor’s viewing figures steadily fell from an average of 14 million viewers per show in its peak (2010) to 9.6 million last year and Britain’s Got Talent’s viewers fell from 13 million in its peak (2009) to an average of just eight million last year. The Only Way is Essex, which started in 2010, had its peak viewing figures back in series three with an average of 1.7 million viewers (2011), as did I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here which peaked in 2004 at 11 million.

The latest series of Britain’s Got Talent which came to a close on the weekend had a promising start with the launch show having the highest number of viewers in the programmes existence, however, on Saturday night ITV drew its lowest ever audience for a BGT final with only 10.7m people tuning in. This was despite the excitement of an 80 year old woman being swung around the stage by her 40 year old dance teacher, a magician freeing himself from a straitjacket to escape the jaws of death and new operatic boy band Collabro being crowned winners.

Is it true to say therefore that the advert including the judge’s children, which aired in the run-up to the series, is what boosted the show’s ratings at first? It got people talking, created an initial stir and buzz around the show and put it back in the press and on people’s radars. Or, was it the introduction of the big gold button directing contestants straight through to the live finals that created initial excitement and intrigue from the British public? It certainly created more opportunity for coverage within the press as we found out which acts each of the judges chose for their one selection.

Either way, the excitement quickly dwindled and interest was rapidly lost. So as a nation are we too accustomed to the shock and drama of reality TV now or are we just bored of watching talent shows where the majority of contestants have little to offer?

New reality TV shows with slightly different twists are airing the whole time, such as the current Ex on the Beach which first aired in April of this year, but viewing figures of these new shows aren’t reaching nearly as high as before. The highest viewing figure Ex on the Beach has seen for example is 789,000.

This year will see the return of Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole to the X Factor to try and bring the viewing figures of this show back up. The move has again caused controversy following Simon and Cheryl’s public fall out a few years ago and has therefore expectedly generated a lot of media attention. This can only leave us wondering whether the X Factor 2014 viewing figures will shoot back up too and if so, for how long.