Fear mongering

"Fearmonger" redirects here. For the Doctor Who audio drama, see The Fearmonger.

Fear mongering or scaremongering is the deliberate use of fear based tactics including exaggeration and usually repetition to influence the public in order to achieve a desired outcome. It is a tactic used to scare or put fear into those viewing a campaign/advertisement and influence the outcome based on fear.[1]

An example of "fear mongering" used through a sign

Tactics in the media

The tactics used to communicate a message using fear-mongering range in different media. The news is an example where they aren’t trying to inform the country of stories happening at the moment but rather scaring people about bombs and terrorist attacks, It’s the way its portrayed rather than straight forward truth there are headlines reading “TERRORIST ATTACK BOMBS” in bright red and bloody writing. Psychologically this will inform the viewer what it is however adding the sense of fear and therefore intriguing them to watch. These types of stories prey on anxieties and hold the viewer hostage in their own home forced to watch what’s happening in their beloved country. Previously reporting the news used to be honest, truthful and fair, it’s not about who gets the story first anymore but rather about who gets the best ratings due to the amount of horror stories taking first place. Bloody shootings or murders take first story on the news these days but the story is never deep enough, the story stays at a surface level to emphasise the fear rather than explain the story. (Psy.D., 2011)[2]

Another tactic used is called a “Crawl”. Viewers see this "crawl" scroll across the bottom on the screen which is related to “breaking news”, which will generally consist of something rather horrific which draws the viewers attention away from what’s actually being talked about and instead to what’s happening on the bottom of the screen. The use of crawls is becoming a more common occurrence with some shows having 2-4 crawls per show and its not just on news-based programmes that it’s happening. Adults and children are getting used to having information shoved down their throats as its available to pop up or read at any time. (Psy.D., 2011)[2]

Using these fear based tactics have made people think that living in certain places is too dangerous or that crime rates have risen considerably and tainting their thoughts with these fearful stories and images is making the viewers think the world is an unsafe place when in reality these stories are coming from a small portion of the world and what’s really going on that’s important of the world to know is running as a mediocre story. The generations growing up with this as news is going to think this is how it’s always been, a biased truth.(Psy.D., 2011)[2]

In marketing


There is no doubt that fear can be an effective medium at relaying a message, however things go much deeper than that. Research shows that the effects of using fear marketing can both be facilitating and inhibiting to whether the audience accepts the message. Fear marketing is especially effective with certain markets, while others are much less affected . Fear seems to be an effective means for new products to show their usefulness to a market that has never before considered their product, as well as it is effective at targeting those with low anxiety and high self-esteem. In our world the population is oversaturated with vast quantities of advertising. In this environment, fear is very effective, as it cuts through the other positive messages, providing something that the consumer may have never heard of before and is very different from the other messages that they receive throughout the day.

The effectiveness of fear in marketing comes from the ability to establish a need. For example, with life insurance. If a marketing campaign uses fear to target people who do not have life insurance, it can awake a desire for the product, as it can allow people to see the need for this product. To go along with this, if a person who sees this advert already has life insurance, they can act in a negative way, which reduces their affinity for the product in question. Fear truly is, a double edged sword. On one hand, it is very effective with certain groups and can easily translate a message, whilst on the other hand, with many groups, it will have no effect and, in some cases actually have a detrimental effect, either making people form a dislike for a product, or act in the opposite way to what the message wanted them to.

The effectiveness of fear is subject to several variables. The audience watching, the way it has been encoded, the transmission form and the degree of fear that is used . Tests that have been performed show that a low level of fear in adverts is effective with only some groups, while it is hypothesised that using more graphic imagery may invoke stronger emotions, leaving a more lasting impact. Whether this is true or not is yet to be seen, as there is heavy ethical implications with using graphical imagery in advertising, due to the mass market that may be exposed to it, so much so that it has not yet been fully researched .


Fear is an emotion that is easily exploited, yet it is rarely used, why? Probably due to the ethical responsibilities that come with this form of advertising. The marketplace that fear-based appeals are usually found is on the television, which is a very broad platform that is observed by many different types of users. This means that if a marketer were to encode a message using a heavy level of fear to target, for example old men with erectile dysfunctions, there are a large proportion of people who will receive this message for whom it both doesn’t relate and can have negative side effects . If this message were to reach children, there is the potential to have a negative influence on the child’s mind and emotional wellbeing. Hence, why discretion is advised when using fear-based marketing.

Using fear marketing upon the elderly is a critical area filled with debate at the moment. Whilst some say that it is wrong to target the elderly and to do so is taking advantage of people, others say that the elderly of the modern age are no more vulnerable than anyone else, so targeting them is actually not necessarily an ethical issue. While the elderly may not necessarily be any more vulnerable, there are beyond doubt, certain groups within this segment that it would be truly unethical to target, such as those with dementia, or another such mentally debilitating disease . The general consensus among scholars is that if marketers are determined to target the elderly, then there must be a large amount of thought that must take place as to all of the implications of doing so, including the effects on others that may see the message, as well as whether the positive effects can outweigh the negative.

Another issue with fear in marketing is that one of the reasons it is so effective is that it makes individuals anxious. There is an argument as to whether it is right for marketer to give people anxiety about topics, while they are in the safety of their homes or elsewhere. When people are so vulnerable to this type of stimuli, is it right that they are exploited when they did not consent to being targeted in this way and when it can be difficult to draw away from it? . A lot of research says no, it is not appropriate, yet many organisations still use this method, as they see it as their go-to method of breaking through the “clutter” caused by other media.

By industry

Fear in marketing is not frequently used, however when it is, the chances are high that it is within one of a selection of industries. Some key industries are the anti-smoking movement, healthcare and safe-driving campaigns. This is because fear advertising can be very effective at deterring bad behaviour, as well as making people feel unsafe with what they currently do. As aforementioned, fear in marketing only effectively targets select groups of people. Generally, younger males are very unreceptive to fear based marketing, while older people or females are much more receptive.This presents a challenge for marketers that use fear in a specific industry. Most industries do not focus on just one of these groups, so by using just fear, it is impossible to create a campaign that is effective for all segments of the market..

Safe driving campaigns

An advertising campaign which commonly uses fear is drink-driving/distracted-driving campaigns. Studies have been conducted as to the effectiveness of this method and the results have shown that it has limited effectiveness. While it is effective at targeting young females and older people, young males (who generally are the most likely to offend) are very unreceptive to this form of advertising. In fact, after seeing some of adverts in a controlled test, the results showed that young males were more likely to offend than before, having the opposite effect to what is intended. While the message is effective against young females, the message is very ineffective towards the message’s target audience.


Another common area of focus is in anti-smoking campaigns. Fear based marketing in this sector has shown to be a double-edged sword. While it encourages some users to stop, with others it has the exact opposite effect, reinforcing these behaviours. Manyiwa and Brennan, in their article Fear Appeals in Anti-Smoking Advertising: How Important is Self-Efficacy suggest that it is important for advertisers to not just use fear, but to also provide positive messaging about people being able to quit, as this has shown to be more effective at preventing these habits than fear alone. Since a side-effect of fear in this form of advertising is generally disgust, this type of advertising is even less effective. This is because disgust provokes automatic disengagement, which in turn means that the message is not decoded effectively .

Other health campaigns

One more area where fear is used in advertising is in other health related adverts. While fear marketing will always be noticed, once again in the health sector, fear marketing can have more of a detrimental impact than a positive one. Excluding the ethical implications, research into the use of fear in health adverts has shown to be inconclusive as to whether there is a positive benefit that outweighs the negative . While companies want to try their best to show consumers what potential negative health issues are out there and how they can be remedied with their product, this same message has the potential to cause large amounts of anxiety for those who are ill-equipped to deal with this form of advertising, such as children. It is immensely important for marketers to take time to weigh in the potential effects of their advertising through this emotional medium, as the effects that it may have can be very harming, both for the intended audience as well as those who receive the message without intending to, such as children.


Political campaign advertisements

"Daisy" advertisement

Probably the best-known example in American politics, pre-9/11, is the Daisy television commercial, a famous campaign television advertisement beginning with a little girl standing in a meadow with chirping birds, picking the petals of a daisy while counting each petal slowly. When she reaches "9", an ominous-sounding male voice is then heard counting down a missile launch, and as the girl's eyes turn toward something she sees in the sky, the camera zooms in until her pupil fills the screen, blacking it out. When the countdown reaches zero, the blackness is replaced by the flash and mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion.

As the firestorm rages, a voice-over from President Johnson states, "These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die". Another voice-over then says, "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home".[3]

Product advertisements

New Zealand politician Nick Smith accused Ken Ring of scaremongering in 2011: "Frankly what Mr Ring is doing is no better than people crying fire without cause in a packed stadium or picture theatre." – March 2011[4]

Advertisers have also entered the arena with their discovery that "fear sells". Ad campaigns based on fear, sometimes referred to as shockvertising, have become increasingly popular in recent years. Fear is a strong emotion and it can be manipulated to steer people into making emotional rather than reasoned choices. From car commercials that imply that having fewer airbags will cause your family harm, to disinfectant commercials that show bacteria lurking on every surface, fear-based advertising works.[5] While using fear in ads has generated some negative reactions by the public, there is evidence to show that "shockvertising" is a highly effective persuasion technique, and over the last several years, advertisers have continued to increase their usage of fear in ads in what has been called a "never-ending arms race in the advertising business".[6]

Author Ken Ring was accused of scaremongering by New Zealand politician Nick Smith. The Auckland seller of almanacs made predictions about earthquakes and weather patterns based on lunar cycles, and some of his predictions were taken seriously by some members of the public in connection with the 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand.[7]

See also


  1. Fear mongering. (n.d.) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved March 30, 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Fear+mongering
  2. 1 2 3 Psy.D., D. S. (2011, June 7th). If It Bleeds, It Leads: Understanding Fear-Based Media. Retrieved March 29th, 2016, from Psychology today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/two-takes-depression/201106/if-it-bleeds-it-leads-understanding-fear-based-media
  3. "Classic Political Ad: Daisy Girl (1964)". Retrieved 25 August 2010.
  4. Alex Walls (March 15, 2011). "Nick Smith: Ken Ring offensive; should be held to account". The National Business Review. Retrieved 2011-06-19. ACC Minister Nick Smith has said that earthquake soothsayer Ken Ring was “reckless and “irresponsible” and that he ought to be held to account for his predictions of a further earthquake in Christchurch.
  5. Nedra Weinreich (3 June 2006). "Making Fear-Based Campaigns Work". Retrieved 15 January 2009.
  6. Barbara Righton (December 18, 2006). "Fear Advertising". Retrieved 15 January 2009.
  7. "'Reckless' quake claims not helping, says Smith". ONE News. 20 March 2011.
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