When advertising plays the fear card

With Halloween around the corner, I thought about the advertising campaigns that have  elicited a sense of fear in me over the years. The ones that immediately spring to mind are from the 70s and 80s; ads that I recall seeing as a child or teen.  Many of these campaigns preyed on the British public’s fears, leveraging the power of persuasion that television yielded at the time, and the public’s greater susceptibility to being told what to do and not to do.

Fear mongering or shock tactics have long been the preserve of public information campaigns that attempt to drive behaviour change, or charity campaigns.  Most brands, however, tend to avoid aligning themselves to the emotion of fear.  That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a powerful motivation in a lot of consumption decisions – fear of missing out, fear of loss, fear of being left out etc. – but brands tend to want to put a positive spin on things, promising empowerment, confidence or control instead.

Here are 5 of my spooky picks.  Three are for public information campaigns, and two for brands, one of which unwittingly scared the living daylights out of people.

Kinder Surprise, 1980s


I doubt very much whether Kinder intended their Humpty Dumpty character to frighten a nation of small children to their very core.  I was one of the people who saw it for real, on air during the children’s afternoon TV schedule, and I’m not sure what lasting effects it has had.  It was banned almost immediately from our screens.


Chip pan fire prevention advertising, 1970s

maxresdefaultI was tiny when this ad was on air, but I will never forget it.  Anyone whose mum had a chip pan would recognise the simultaneous rush of excitement and fear when that puppy was produced from the kitchen cupboard.

That poor woman (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mrs Brown) being ‘mansplained’ by some sanctimonious didact. And check out how he suddenly takes a very accusatory tone. ‘If you don’t let it start, you won’t have to stop it.’ You can almost hear the disdain in his voice for anyone who would ever dream of using a chip pan.

Anti smoking ad ‘Natural Born Smoker’, 1980s 


This ad took Bladerunner as its inspiration. It created a dystopian future vision of the human race, distorted by evolution because of their addiction to smoking. It was utterly terrifying when it appeared on our TV screens, but also incredibly clever. Forcing people to confront the grotesqueness of what smoking could do to them, not by preaching or holding up a mirror, but by creating a character so repulsive, any sane person would want to run a mile from a cigarette.

TV license evasion, 1980s

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There wasn’t a family in the country who weren’t terrified when they heard that a ‘Detector Van’ was in their neighbourhood. The Royal Mail was responsible for collecting TV license revenue at the time, and they’d put adverts in the local paper saying “TV detector vans are coming to your town”. They would drive around with their huge aerials revolving, to make sure they were seen. Whether they actually worked or were a threatening PR stunt is still the subject of speculation.

Corsodyl Mouth Wash campaign, 2016


An example of a brand that isn’t afraid to play into many people’s irrational fear of losing their teeth to make its point. The brand Corsodyl boldly positions itself as the mouthwash for people who spit blood when they brush their teeth. No skirting around the problem here. This is use it or lose it advertising.

Happy Halloween! 

McQ Thinking is a boutique brand and communication consultancy that partners with the marketing and advertising communities. Find out more at www.mcqthinking.com.

The new way to worship luxury brands: from retail temples to art temples

UnknownIn a previous blog post I talked about how we are seeing a trend among Italian luxury brands to act as the new cultural patrons, citing examples such as Fendi and Tod’s who are contributing to the restoration of the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum in Rome.

Now we have another example of cultural patronage with the new Fondazione Prada in Milan.  A magnificent 19,000-square-metre space, designed by “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas, which includes a cinema, a 1950s retro cafe designed by film director Wes Anderson, and a series of exhibition spaces, housing some of the 900 works that Miuccia Prada and her husband have collected over several decades. It truly is a magnificent space.

Miuccia Prada has spoken of wanting to be “an active part of shaping culture” and resists the patronage angle, which is why she says the brand has always resisted sponsoring exhibitions.


Milan has been rather devoid of the world-class art attractions that London, New York, Paris and Berlin have to offer. It’s interesting to see that it has taken a private enterprise to fill the gap, as the Italian economy struggles to rebound from its longest recession on record.

In the same vein, we have the Fondation Louis Vuitton, designed by Frank Gehry and located in the Bois de Boulogne of Paris.


Michael Burke, the chief executive of Louis Vuitton has said “if the 20th century was about manufacturing, the 21st century will be about intangibles”, meaning concern for things like heritage, the arts and the environment.”

It’s interesting to note that the global powerhouse luxury brands , Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci are all experiencing a downturn in business fortunes.  These flashier and more ostentatious brands are even waning in popularity with Chinese luxury consumers, who are now seeking more understated luxury alternatives. (Smaller, less ubiquitous brands like Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent are, in contrast, doing very well).

Perhaps the likes of Prada and Louis Vuitton will benefit from “ennobling” their brands by putting them at the centre of art and culture.  For these brands that have spent years building retail temples to themselves, perhaps these new kinds of temples – foundations – will imbue them with a richer and more valuable type of meaning.

McQ Thinking is a boutique brand and communication consultancy that partners with the marketing and advertising communities. Find out more at www.mcqthinking.com.


When creativity shatters innocence

3032796-poster-p-1-shell-lego-greenpeace-commAt this year’s D&AD Awards five White Pencils were awarded, honouring examples of creativity for good.  One of the winners was the Greenpeace campaign Lego: Everything is not awesome by the agency Don’t Panic.

This was an extremely clever campaign that leveraged characters from the Lego movie, showing them slowly drowning in oil in order to leverage  the public’s support to persuade the Danish toymaker to cut its longstanding sponsorship arrangement with Shell, and to protest against Shell’s drilling in the Arctic. The campaign also re-worked the song Everything is Awesome from the movie, from an upbeat track to a downbeat cover.

During the three-month campaign, over one million people worldwide had emailed LEGO to ask it to end its partnership with Shell, resulting in LEGO caving in and ceasing its arrangement.

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Lidl seizes its moment to make play while the sun shines

Print ads rarely grab my attention, but this one did. It’s by Lidl, one of the upstarts in the grocery sector. (Click on it to read).

lidl-sun-advertThe brand was taking a smart swipe at Morrisons’ new loyalty card scheme –  ‘Match & More’ – that promises to price match your shopping against  Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco as well as Aldi and Lidl. Here’s a snippet  of what it says:

  • Go to the Morrisons website
  • Find the ‘loyalty card scheme’ page
  • Set up your online account
  • Create memorable password
  • Hand over some ‘minor details’ about your self such as name, last name, email and postcode
  • Etc. etc.

A brilliant bit of writing (well done TBWA) and a brilliant bit of sniping.  Beware Goliaths when you take a pot shot at a David that is growing in scale and confidence. They won’t take it lying down.

We are seeing a pretty seismic shift in the UK grocery landscape. According to the most recent Kantar figures for October 2014, Tesco’s sales have slipped by 3.6% versus a year ago. By contrast, Lidl’s sales increased by 18.3%. Recent data suggests that around one in two of us Brits now shop at Lidl or Aldi. Only a few years ago, shopping at the new breed of European discounter would have been sniffed at.  Today, there’s a certain amount of pride associated with making such a smart choice.

TBWA have caught this headwind perfectly with their confident and playful ad. They know that the public’s mood is moving more in their favour, and the hold on their purse strings that the big supermarkets have had is loosening. They are shopping more often, across more stores.

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Are brands the new cultural patrons?

I was recently in Venice, taking in the glorious sights, including one of my favourite art galleries in the world, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Peggy was a highly influential and acquisitive patron of 20th century art, often buying items that didn’t sell, and works for which there was, as yet, no market, just because she loved them. Her collection, housed in a palazzo on the Canale Grande is bursting at the seams with the cubist, surrealist and abstract works of Picasso, Ernst, Kandinsky, Magritte and many more. She actually gave Jackson Pollock his first show. Peggy used to say that it was her duty to “protect the art of her own time.” In her way, she was helping to give birth to modern art culture.

5600834909_20a457e250_zPeggy was different to the patrons of renaissance Italy, like the Medici family of Florence,  who essentially ordered works of art or architecture to order from the top artists of the day. They would enter into a contract with an artist that specified how much he would be paid, what kinds of materials would be used, how long it would take to complete, and what the subject of the work would be. These commissions promoted not simply the ruler but the prestige of the city. Patronage was a tool of rulership and diplomacy. Peggy, by contrast, patronised the artists that she loved, and was open to being educated about their work, confessing that at the start “my knowledge of art ended at impressionism.” Continue reading

Why Banksy ‘Mobile Lovers’ has the power to unsettle


Already dubbed ‘Mobile Lovers’ by fans and art websites, Banksy’s latest work has made the headlines after cropping up on the wall of a gym in Bristol. His work always offers critical commentary on societal issues, and there’s a definite message on offer in his latest work. The scene depicted is one that is by no means foreign to us; two people physically close to one another, but not engaged with one another, due to their other loves – their mobile devices.

The irony here is that the technology that is supposed to help us connect, is actually serving to keep us apart. It is also beautifully portrayed in this popular YouTube video called I forgot my phone.

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More brands need to tune into Generation Share

“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” 

This is a quote from the novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, but it could easily be the mantra of the Millennial generation. This generation (born after 1980) has been at the leading edge of the so-called Sharing Economy – as creators and consumers – an economy that was estimated by Forbes to be worth around $3.5 billion in 2013, and growing at around 25%.

Perhaps the most famous posterchild brand for the sharing economy -  Airbnb – has just been valued at $10bn, which makes it worth more than some long established hotel companies, such as Hyatt Hotels Corp ($8.4bn)

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Can a brand deliver the human touch without the human touch?

Every now and then, you come across a service brand which delivers a brilliant experience – one that you want to share. I had such an experience recently at a Citizen M hotel.

This small but rapidly expanding boutique hotel chain was founded in Holland by Rattan Chadha, the man behind the Mexx Clothing company. It was designed with a new breed of global traveller in mind, highly aspirational, yet price conscious.

What makes the Citizen M experience such an interesting one is that it delivers a seamless service experience that feels really intimate and personal, while being technology driven. I found myself so intrigued as to how a hotel experience, which is typically people-led, could make me feel so good despite the low dependency on human beings to deliver it.

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E-Lites: Smoking reinvented or branding recycled?

As I was flicking through the newspaper on the plane the other week, a print ad for E-Lites stopped me in my tracks. I am not a smoker, or a reformed smoker, but the ad stood out for me, and I wanted to analyse it a bit more to understand why.


The E-lites brand position themselves as the champions of ‘self belief’.  It is done in a way that portrays the audience as independent, self-sufficient and autonomous. Masters of their own destiny. Interestingly, this can be thought of as a return to many of the positive attitudes and ideals that surrounded smoking at the middle of last century. The idea of a rebel, a leader, someone who is separate from others and self-sustaining. The idea of emancipation.  This sheds light on some of conventions of their executions. The lone person that faces a grand outdoor landscape they must contend with is very much symbolic of independence and self sufficiency.

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Should we ‘lean in’ to the ‘athena doctrine’?

I found myself reading two books on leadership last year that particularly piqued my feminist interest.  The first was The Athena Doctrine: How women (and the men who think like them) will rule the future by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio. The second was Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead by Sheryl Sandberg.  Both featured in the New York Times Bestseller List.

Both sets of authors come from the same essential starting point. That men, and male values, still rule the world, and that women, and female values, are sadly under-represented in all avenues of leadership.  Both books are clarion calls to end this imbalance, but each approaches it from a unique perspective.

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