Total Media

Why the fear factor works

How can advertisers use emotions to improve an advertising strategy?


'The fear factor' sounds dramatic, but the reality of mood targeting in advertising is that it’s an important part of media strategy – and you need to get it right. We all respond differently to content depending on our moods (ever tried watching kid’s show Peppa Pig after a terrible day at work? Just one of the joys of having kids). But this goes beyond our TV choices – in 2003, researchers found that on a given day, stock market performance will improve if it’s sunny. Based on the assumption that most of us are happier when it’s sunny, it’s clear that our mood impacts our actions, our decisions and our reactions.

Advertisers need to be aware of how different emotions can impact our buying decisions. It’s not just happiness that can create returns – every emotion speaks differently to products, and sometimes, sadness or stress can be our friends when it comes to consumer decision making. So how can you use emotions to improve your advertising strategy?

Let’s start with how sadness affects our buying behaviour. Sadness is characterised by a feeling of loss, explained Lazarus in 1991. It therefore makes sense that sadness will increase tendencies towards high-risk, high-reward options with instant gratification. In 2013, Lerner et al found that people who were sad were more likely to accept a sum of money that came in immediately, even when waiting for three months would increase the amount given.

Interestingly, people in a sad mood are also more inclined to charitable giving. For instance, when a group of older children were made to feel depressed, they were found to exhibit more generosity than the control group. It is therefore arguable that altruism acts as a kind of self-gratification that helps us to improve our negative moods. For advertisers, this is significant when planning a charitable giving campaign.

Positive moods enhance our knowledge about brands, as we put more effort into absorbing information in general when we’re happy. What’s more we are more likely to associate the brand itself with positivity if we learn about it while in a good mood. In a study, researchers at the University of Amsterdam asked participants to flick through a newspaper and answer questions about which ads they could remember. Fascinatingly, readers in a good mood remembered 28% more ads than those in a bad mood, while in a separate study, people rating likeability of ads who reported happy moods rated the ad 62% higher than those who reported a grumpy mood.

You can target some happiness even further when you take into account that the propensity to try new brands increases when people have recently undergone a life change – and so when looking to challenge people, target those likely to have changed jobs or moved cities. And try it while they’re in a good mood!

We’ve all been there. You’re feeling worked up, and you walk past the biscuit tray in the office and it becomes irresistible. This isn’t just you, however. Stress and effort takes cognitive resources away from the part of the brain that normally controls emotional urges. Therefore, when people are challenged by demanding cognitive tasks they are more likely to yield to temptation.

Stanford Professor Baba Shiv devised a test that illustrates how weak our control over decision making actually is when we’re doing too many things at once. He had people choose between an unhealthy but appealing snack (chocolate cake) and a healthy but less attractive snack (fruit salad), while trying to remember either a short or long sequence of numbers. Those with the easier task of remembering one or two numbers chose cake 42% of the time. However, 63% of those trying to hold a longer sequence of numbers in their heads opted for the unhealthier snack. With only the mildest of stressful interference, people gave in more easily to temptation. In practice, FMCG advertisers can think about targeting people who are busy – at work, on their commute – in order to enhance effectiveness.

Although maximising your ‘fear spend’ sounds strange, it has genuine marketing value. For instance, when making social statements about a product, those that imply conformity are the most persuasive when people are afraid. In 2009, research found that behavioural social proof appeals, such as "everybody’s doing it," are more persuasive when people are in a fearful mood. This is due to the human instinct to conform when threatened. Marketing something as popular with a wide range of people therefore fits into their desire to merge with the crowd and is something that can work for fashion brands in particular.

On the other hand, this should be employed carefully. Businesses looking to target couples should keep in mind that those in a romantic mood feel exactly the opposite, and are looking to stand out. These differentiations help to tell us why mood targeting is so important – getting the right message to a person in the wrong mood is as bad as not getting it to them at all.

So how can brands and advertisers apply this in real terms? The answer is by looking at your customer touchpoints. When are you reaching them? Where are they? Consider what mood they are likely to be in when they see your ad, and then differentiate your media buying according to plan and watch your results improve.