EW! The Scare Factor in Advertising

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2014 Buick Advertisement

Health companies have long relied on the scare factor in advertising, hoping that grave warnings and overly gruesome images will keep us from engaging in reckless behavior. (See anti-tobacco ads that feature individuals who have lost their teeth, their gums, need a respirator, etc). But these advertisements often have the adverse effect. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with gruesome images, at some point they begin to lose their effectiveness. The scare factor in advertising is no longer just a scary image. It has evolved to include the element of surprise, and to reflect a minimalistic design. One of the award winning advertising campaigns at Cannes this past year was designed for General Motors and Buick in Asia.


The advertising campaign consisted of several landscape shots, usually of vacant city streets, and an individual holding up a street sign. Upon first glance, there is nothing remarkable about them. But if you look for five seconds, you quickly realize that these average citizens are handicapped in some grotesque way – and holding the very street sign that an offender disregarded that resulted in their injuries. A woman, who has lost an arm, holds a speed limit sign. The tagline reads, “The signs are there for a reason.” Even the aforementioned anti-smoking advertisements I mentioned are changing. The current campaign running for anti-smoking includes a quiet monologue being read by again, what seems to be an average citizen. Until they have a quiet pause and reveal something about them – they have had throat surgery, have dentures, or were hiding a malady off screen.


These advertisements have been following this new trend – using the scare factor combined with the element of surprise. Because we have unfortunately grown numb to images of war and those of grotesque ailments, the ‘scare factor’ alone is not affective. Both of these two campaigns look ‘normal’ upon first glance, potentially what makes it so terrifying when we realize that something is not what it seems. It makes these two occurrences, tobacco related illness and reckless driving, seem as though it can happen to us. Because, those two average citizens had it happen to them! The scare factor has evolved, in advertising, to make these frightening occurrences even more shocking. They aim to frighten us through their normality, not their abnormality. Without a doubt the result of heavy market research, the scare campaign has changed to use quiet, psychological warfare – the boogieman is out of a job.

3 thoughts on “EW! The Scare Factor in Advertising

  1. While these images are gruesome, I think they are able to succinctly and effectively communicate the messages people have been telling us our whole lives. When mom says, “Don’t smoke you’ll get cancer!” or “Drive safe!” we tend to brush it off. These pictures and stories are too shocking to shake.


  2. I personally don’t really believe that gruesome or shocking images of the affects of smoking/drug use, etc. are very useful. Everyone knows that smoking cigarettes, using drugs, and/or drinking alcohol have negative consequences, so I am curious if there is any proof that these ads have any REAL affect other than an “ew, that’s disgusting/terrifying” reaction.

    That being said, I think the reason I feel so off about anti-drug/anti-smoking commercials was because of this commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rh8GbPnoqCI
    So maybe if anti-substance commercials had started off from the beginning with the “average guy has a shocking secret” strategy, instead of the “my friend smokes pot now and she turned into a pancake” method, I would have understood and taken their message more seriously from the start.


  3. I could say, without a doubt, the scare factor needs to be constantly improved. For example, horror movies with predictable plot lines will not scare anyone who has seen a horror movie in the past. That is why newer horror films utilize newer tactics such as found-film footage to make the fright factor more realistic. From personal experience, I recently quit smoking after not being able to rationalize the risk of having to undergo throat surgery or getting lung cancer, and the advertisements you mentioned definitely pushed that fear into my consciousness. Advertisements like that have to battle with convincing real life situations, such as witnessing students on campus smoking cigarettes, which makes smoking seem innocent and trendy.


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