Fear Tactics in Marketing: When Are They Appropriate?

February 24, 2023

Several clients recently asked me about using fear marketing tactics to drive conversion. I recommend listening to a 20-minute podcast covering this exact topic. Brad Davidson, Ph.D., whom I've had the privilege to study under while getting my Masters at The School of Visual Arts, and Sonia Garcia, MPH, explain how fear is a complex emotion and why scaring people doesn't translate into sustainable action.

My Take:

Fear Tactics in marketing are often controversial. While they can be effective in certain situations, they can also damage brands and society. So, when is the use of fear tactics appropriate, and when should marketers avoid them altogether?

Fear tactics are strategies that evoke fear or anxiety within consumers to drive them to take action. Often, these strategies aim to capitalize on existing consumer fears by suggesting that some undesirable outcome will occur if customers don't take action. While fear-based campaigns can successfully drive short-term sales, they come with many risks. The complex nature of understanding fear's impact on behavior makes it difficult for marketers to accurately gauge how their target audience will react to a fear-based campaign. Using fear tactics can result in customer resentment towards the brand, which could lead to decreased loyalty and brand reputation damage over time.

Brad Davidson, Ph.D., says, "Not only is fear a poor short-term motivator, but when we say, oh well, they're afraid, we're being unsophisticated about how complex people are. We have to get much better and more nuanced than, well, it's just fear."

People have complex and physical reactions to fear. Our palms sweat, our heart races, and it can even trigger traumatic memories, anxiety, or depression. Our health and mental well-being all get damaged by fear. Fear-induced advertising can even hurt society if misused and advertised at scale (e.g., Trump).

Rather than relying on fear tactics for their marketing efforts, brands should utilize hope for positive outcomes and foster long-term relationships. The best way for marketers to do this is by leveraging sound research to identify their target audience's values, needs, and desires; this will help them craft messages that inspire motivation through delight rather than anxiety or dread. Brands should strive to create lasting, authentic connections with customers and strengthen their touch points with meaningful experiences.


Using fear for marketing purposes isn't a good idea. As branders and marketers, we can further people's experiences by leaning into hope and possibilities. Using fear to build relationships is ill-advised.