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.

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