Advertising's fear factor: marketing during a pandemic

As feeling scared has become a part of many people's lives during the coronavirus pandemic, how have advertisers around the world approached this powerful emotion, and what will its role be as we move beyond the era of Covid-19?

Advertising's fear factor: marketing during a pandemic

Certainty, along with loo rolls and hand sanitiser, has been in short supply in recent months. Yet two things are for sure: the advertising industry is astonishingly adept at pulling the levers of human emotion; and many, many people have been frightened out of their wits by the global coronavirus pandemic.

But does that mean, necessarily, that the ad business is capitalising on the power of fear to sell products at a time of crisis? How do these mechanics work more generally? And will the coronavirus outbreak reshape them for the foreseeable future?

Pully Chau, group chief executive of Cheil Greater China, who is based in the country where the epidemic began, didn’t see much evidence of fear being used: "I haven’t seen any scare tactics. Ads stopped. Posters were cancelled. Advertisers asked for compensation and outdoor vendors demanded free rental. Everything has been turned upside down. Over 4,000 smaller internet and technology companies have gone bankrupt in key Chinese cities. The government is implementing ways to keep employment and continue the rural projects of eliminating poverty through industrial employment."

Chau says lockdown conditions were tight and enforced by the general discipline of people following government orders – those who didn’t comply faced mandatory quarantine. She says there were wider fears surrounding businesses being closed and concerns about long-term unemployment, which eased somewhat when lockdown was relaxed in April. 

There were positive aspects, too. Chau points to multinational brands donating relevant products to Wuhan and hospitals across China to keep the supply chain moving. These included Vinda Group, which provided adult incontinence underwear to help nurses, who were sealed inside their protective gear, to be able to go to the bathroom. 

She also describes how ecommerce and logistics businesses blossomed to supply groceries, fresh produce, beverages and sanitary products to people’s homes. Sales of cosmetics and luxury brands fell, she says, with people’s priority being to secure healthcare products.

Pete Lin, managing director for North Asia at We Are Social, echoes some of Chau’s points but adds: "Blatant fear-based messaging causes unnecessary panic and is prone to censorship by the State Administration for Industry and Commerce. However, using fear as an implied mental state of the masses and building messaging above that has become common practice very quickly in China."

He argues that this was soon apparent in the advertising and social messaging from food delivery-services such as ELEME and Meituan, both of which emphasised their implementation of complete sanitation practices from the kitchen to your door. He explains: "They guarantee that no-one in the production and delivery chain of your food order has any symptoms of illness, and these messages appear not only in ads but are also built into digital products like their mobile apps and WeChat mini-programmes."

Lin adds: "Generally, any fear-based messaging has to be packaged as something positive, due to Chinese advertising regulations. For instance, English-tutoring companies like Wall Street English or VIPKid run the same type of messaging – get your child to learn English or they may fall behind. But they never say ‘fall behind’, instead, they tell you that learning English will help your child get ahead in life."

One prominent facet of consumer behaviour elsewhere was not apparent in China, he says: "Surgical masks were in short supply at the onset, and hazmat suits for medical workers were also lacking. However, besides those PPE items, which are now available in abundance as mass manufacturers retooled their production lines, China has not seen panic buying."

It was certainly in evidence elsewhere, though – notably in many European markets and North America, where items disappearing from shelves included loo rolls, pasta and (in the US) guns. Nonetheless, some are impressed with the way that brands – especially the major supermarkets – responded in their marketing messages. Rob Campbell, who recently departed as executive strategy director of  R/GA EMEA, says: "Supermarkets handled it well – they added calm, a sense of ‘it’s tough and we can get through this’, when they could have played it for more profit."

There is a well-established tradition of panic buying leading to product shortages during times of crisis. For instance, the alarm created by the daily news reports during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 contributed to stock-piling and shortages of canned food and bottled water. During the 2003 Sars outbreak, supplies of rice, instant noodles, toilet paper and disinfectant disappeared from shelves in Hong Kong following false rumours of a widespread quarantine.

Panic buying tends to be created by a particular strand of fear-based behaviour – loss aversion – according to Elana Gorbatyuk, chief strategy officer at Sid Lee. This is exhibited both in hoarding, driven in part by older generations’ experience of previous traumatic events – wars and deprivation, for instance – and fear of loss in terms of missing the community and people around us. This manifests itself in a desire to help local businesses, and a rise in buying local, in "supporting the small guys". Loss aversion is also seen in the "lipstick effect" (consumers continuing to spend money on small luxuries and indulgences during times of crisis) – so named because of Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estée Lauder, detailing the leap in lipstick sales following the panic triggered by 9/11.

Gorbatyuk also sees loss aversion playing another role in driving fear-based behaviour during times of crisis. Reports recently suggested that hate crimes against Asians rose in New York City during March this year, and she points to the sharp spike in gun sales in the US (6.5 million background gun-sale checks, up 48%, were made between January and April) due, she says, to "fear of loss of government or more control being instilled by government".

In the past, Gorbatyuk argues, government campaigns have exploited such fears. "Some of the worst kinds are government propaganda ads I sadly know too well, from 1940s Nazi documentaries, such as Der ewige Jude, and ads against the Jews, to Soviet ads that called for citizens to fall in line or be discounted or exiled and jailed." 

In a related vein, a recent exhibition, "The Sleeping Giant: Posters and the Chinese Economy", at New York’s Poster House, highlighted the powerful contribution of Chinese advertising propaganda (pictured, below), especially in the 1930s, to the tight grip of the communist regime at a time when vast numbers were dying of famine.

Gorbatyuk says that loss aversion in the wake of Covid-19 is responsible for rising fear levels that manifest themselves in hate against others. In the US, the Anti-Defamation League, which campaigns on behalf of Jewish people, has reported a rise in xenophobic speech and memes on social-media platforms. "In most cases, platform brands need to make a call – because on one hand they’re the most accessible way for non-brands, and unbranded actions to rise," Gorbatyuk says. "At the same time, they’re brands themselves that are direct-to-consumer and community-based, and I think it’s time to actually choose to design for their role not just their belief system."

This has been thrown into sharp relief by brands’ growing advertising boycott of Facebook over hate speech and misinformation. Digital platforms have also faced the challenge of monitoring ads for medical equipment. Early in the cycle of coronavirus, Amazon, Google and Facebook each said it was working to remove streams of promotions offering over-priced, or useless, medical supplies, including testing kits, masks and surgical gloves. 

This online free-for-all prompted hygiene brand Clorox to move, alongside Amazon, to prevent third-party sellers inflating prices on its products, and the UK Conservative MP Damian Collins to write in Wired: "The agents of disinformation are hijacking the algorithms of social media to sow chaos and confusion. Some are doing so to make money, others more maliciously to undermine public trust in our governments and institutions."

Fear-based tactics from government didn’t take long to surface during the coronavirus outbreak. In March, for instance, the US State of Oregon signed off a campaign from Wieden & Kennedy Portland that used bold, shocking, copy, such as "Don’t accidentally kill someone", to encourage people to "stay home and save lives". It’s an approach that bears some comparison, in tone at least, to the UK government’s stark "Don’t die of ignorance" campaign in response to the rise in cases of HIV/Aids in the country during the latter half of the 1980s.

The UK government argued fear tactics were justified here due to the sheer severity of the situation. "Some of the predictions as to what could happen were terrifying – we were talking millions and millions of people becoming infected," Norman Fowler, the UK’s health secretary at the time, told The Guardian in 2017. "The TV adverts we ran were certainly hard-hitting. There was no point spending a load of money to send out innocuous adverts."

Other government ads that play on "mortal fear with a horror aesthetic", as Gorbatyuk puts it, include anti-drink driving commercials, and anti-smoking campaigns. Another strong example is the "No accidents" activity, from the Workplace and Safety Insurance Board that ran in Canada in 2006. The ads were deliberately provocative, depicting workplace accidents in graphic detail. Adopting a similar tactic, the UK Department for Transport’s 2009 campaign featured a child’s image haunting a reckless driver throughout his life – the man seeing the dead child as he spends time with his own children.

Nic Pietersma, business director at Ebiquity, says: "It is an awful ad, but undeniably memorable and impactful." This leads him to consider the broader issue of whether fear works for marketers in mainstream categories – financial services, FMCG or cosmetics, for instance: "For the most part it’s best for marketers to steer clear of the negative side of the emotional spectrum if selling regular goods. In the end, viewers will tolerate a campaign that manipulates their fears, but only if the aim is to protect life."

Campbell argues that certain categories have become overreliant on fear tactics: "Some industries have used fear as a lazy way to build their business – the insurance companies in the past were big on fear, they might then hide it with humour but it was still about fear.

"Without doubt they do it because it’s hugely effective and it demands attention a lot of the time. But I also feel that, for a lot of people, it’s very easy to put a personal firewall up against all communication, and there’s inherent scepticism where people ask: ‘Are you doing this because you think I should care, or because that’s how you get money?’"

Campbell praises fear-based campaigns that transcend category norms, especially when it comes to deploying humour. Snickers’ use of Sadako Yamamura, a character from Japanese horror movie The Ring, in a parody of the film for Japanese viewers, is one example of an ad taking this approach.

And he holds the belief that brands could try harder to embrace optimism, as his former agency Wieden & Kennedy attempted with campaigns for Nike and Honda, rather than fear: "People find optimism harder to sell, and I get that. In the market, when you’re trying to change behaviour one of the most efficient ways is fear. But there’s a big difference between using fear to help people understand what something means and diffusing some of the pain, versus using fear as your weapon. A lot of companies are using fear as their weapon rather than taking the fear that people have and finding ways to reduce it, explain it, or get past it."

FMCG categories, including cleaning products and cosmetics, have traditionally based much of their advertising upon generating a low-grade sense of fear among audiences – of lacking the perfect body, the perfect home, the perfect family. Campbell says: "Male and female categories claim to be all about empowerment and yet, if you look at it, they’re basically saying we’re not good enough."

That’s changing quickly, however. Gorbatyuk says: "The brands that make ‘icky’ normalised are on the rise – especially anything around feminine hygiene. How can we be afraid of something that happens every single day? This overcoming of illogical fears will, I think, continue to be accelerated."

Recent campaigns such as that by Saatchi & Saatchi  for Tampax in the US and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s global "Viva la vulva" work for Libresse/Bodyform embody this shift. And Gorbatyuk also sees a future in which there is less fear-based advertising in the beauty category: "It’s moving swiftly towards self-care, and self-care is moving to collective care – that’s a relationship we should be looking at. Who might take that position quickest is anybody’s bet – but I would put my money on the Sephoras of the world because they can curate around it."

One fear factor on the rise is scarcity, driven by the fear of missing out, exacerbated during lockdown but also in evidence throughout more settled times – the need for that concert ticket, access to a big sporting event, or the latest dress can become all consuming. 

For Gorbatyuk, however, advertisers are beginning to harness this anxiety for something more positive: "Sure, FOMO campaigns are often associated with live events and have a big socio-cultural regret factor. Certainly, none of us wants to be left out but, while exclusion can be a powerful pull, belonging can be a positive aspect of FOMO.

"More recently I’ve seen how fear is being used as a way to drive our need for belonging and social interaction, our need to thwart common enemies, and ultimately, unite. This fear is rooted in FOMO and perhaps more deeply felt as a fear of regret."

Gorbatyuk picks Droga5’s ‘The truth is hard" campaign for The New York Times as an example, because it "uses fear of the enemy, of lies or opinions, in a way that unites citizens". She also mentions Sid Lee’s own 2017 work for The North Face (pictured, below), "Walls are meant for climbing", for "choosing to usurp fear with united FOMO". 

She argues that this shift could benefit platform brands in particular, such as Netflix, TikTok and WeChat, because "they are built on belonging and community". 

In China, opportunities based on this optimistic view are emerging, following what seems to be the worst of the coronavirus outbreak. Chau says that they will involve marketing and technology that can help deliver better education, healthcare and medical ecommerce platforms, online tourism, finance and sanitised homecare.

In terms of ads themselves, Lin says that they are already less foreboding: "Most brands have adopted a constant coronavirus theme to their social-media content. In the past couple of weeks, the tone has changed to become one of hope and rejuvenation – although with continuing consumer caution, no brand is being overly celebratory."

However, there seems little doubt that fear will remain an intrinsic part of advertising messaging for the foreseeable future. As Lin concludes: "I think that until a vaccine is found, messages about keeping clean, healthy and disease-free will continue to be a part of advertising. Brands have been very sensitive to the people’s mentality and anxieties, and no brand wants to make a mistake in telling people to be reckless."