Fear factor isn't enough: Ads have to gross you out to work best

Feb 29, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- We've all seen the ads meant to scare us into buying products like protective sunscreen or to avoid doing something like drugs. Well, it turns out those advertisements may only freeze us with fear and inaction. New research from the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University shows, in order to work best, these ads also have to disgust and gross us out.

“Fear creates uncertainty and insecurity over what to do, but gives us a very strong impulse to avoid and distance ourselves from the item or situation as quickly as possible,” explains Andrea Morales, W. P. Carey School of Business marketing professor, lead author of the work. “When you add a disgusting message or image to an advertisement, it can significantly increase the ad’s effectiveness.”

The new research from Morales and her colleagues was just posted online by the Journal of Marketing Research. It points to successful, disgusting campaigns, such as one by the New York City Department of Health that centered on images of soda turning into gobs of fat. Department officials say sugar-rich beverage consumption in the area dropped by 12 percent after the campaign. Other popular advertisements in the disgusting category include a medication ad with a creepy yellow rat-like creature attacking a human toenail, a pain-medication ad featuring a pair of feet covered in fire ants, and an anti-smoking matchbook with graphic images of decayed, blackened teeth.

“Disgust dramatically enhances persuasion and compliance above and beyond just fear appeals,” says Morales. “You have to go beyond scare tactics to produce a strong and immediate avoidance reaction or a change in behavior. For example, disgust is especially good at motivating people toward losing weight, quitting smoking or changing another behavior to improve their health.”

In particular, the research discusses a real ad campaign in Britain that showed graphic images linking cigarettes with fat-filled arteries. The 2004 campaign by the British Heart Foundation and the local Department of Health was so successful that the United Kingdom’s government is planning to print these pictorial-warning images on all tobacco products sold in the U.K.

“We’ve also seen several recent ads for cleaning products that disgust viewers by talking about and showing the dirt, grime and germs left behind when you use other, less effective mops, cleansers, even toothpaste,” says Morales. “A new series of Febreze commercials shows people in filthy rooms, but smelling pleasant odors thanks to the spray.”

In a series of five experiments, the researchers repeatedly found the same thing. When people looked at ads with neutral messages or those simply meant to induce , they didn’t work as well as those using disgust.

For example, 155 undergraduate students looked at various versions of a real anti-meth ad with the same words and format, but different, altered images. The version with a teen whose face was covered in open sores was found to be much more effective than the versions with a picture of a coffin or two teens sitting side by side. The coffin, while scary, didn’t portray an immediate, imminent, disgusting threat.

Another experiment involved showing participants a ad with identical images, but different text in each case. The most persuasive version talked about “open sores that crust and do not heal for weeks,” “scaly red patches” and “wart-like growths that ooze and bleed.” The reaction to it was far more significant than a neutral ad version and one that simply talked about “a severe sunburn” and the “possibility of heat stroke.”

Morales’ co-authors are Eugenia Wu, assistant professor at Cornell University and Gavan Fitzsimons, professor at Duke University.

Explore further: Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

More information: The full write-up called “How Disgust Enhances the Effectiveness of Fear Appeals,” is available at the Journal of Marketing Research website at www.journals.marketingpower.com/doi/abs/10.1509/jmr.07.0364 .

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

P&G marketing layoffs new sign of the times, expert says

Feb 01, 2012

Consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble’s move to lay off some 1,600 employees globally, many in the marketing area, foretells a trend in which more companies will move their advertising dollars from traditional to digital ...

3Qs: Analyzing the super bowl ads

Feb 07, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI drew hundreds of millions of viewers in the U.S. and around the world, so it’s no surprise that advertisers doled out some $3.5 million per 30-second spot to showcase their goods and services. ...

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.