How fear draws us near

Why brands make us feel scared

How fear draws us near

Let’s rewind. Back in the early 20th century Edward Bernays was making his mark. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, he came up with the idea that human minds could be manipulated. He ended up as an advisor to the US president and to businesses like Proctor and Gamble. Then his contemporary, the academic, John B Watson, moved into advertising. He had the idea that we humans are governed by three emotional states – love, rage and, yes, fear. And he applied it, with a great deal of success, to his advertising career. Because these three states are what drive brands. Loyalty, growth, a following.

Emotion is the superglue of compelling creative work. People are instantly drawn to something that looks interesting and original, but the feeling it evokes in them is what makes the difference between something they can walk away and forget – or something they will hold close and tell other people about. We’ve been looking at some diverse emotions and how they manifest in our modern day lives.


As things go, fear is pretty useful – back in the day it probably saved the human race from that sabre toothed tiger or deadly snake. But we humans still have the same instincts to protect and nurture our own – we remain slaves to our unconscious – and fear plays a major part in this.

Here are a few scenarios we’re all familiar with…

Fear of imagination: the bit when Hansel and Gretel are about to get cooked in the witch’s oven.

Fear of humiliation: the challenge to jump off the wall that, once you’re up there, seems improbably far from the ground.

Fear of infiltration: the twitter ranter who says immigration spawns terrorism and will destroy our society.

Fear of humiliation: you’re 16 and still using an iphone 4 your Mum gave you and you’re worried what they’ll say in school.

Fear for titillation: movie night: popcorn and a film that is going to scare the wits out of us.

Mostly, these will feel pretty familiar. But perhaps the really fascinating thing about fear is that we often choose it. We even have an acronym about it: FOMO.

Fear can also be a strongly persuasive element in our choices and decisions, even subliminally, and never more so than where brands are concerned. It has, of course, been used very effectively to sell many things. Toilet Duck keeps us fully up to speed on the topic of “harmful bacteria lurking beneath the rim waiting to accost us and destroy our lives. Volvo, for years, successfully used fear to generate sales, showing us what might happen in a vehicle without their state-of -the-art safety features (crash test dummy anyone?). It has been put to terrifically good use in anti-smoking and drug campaigns. Tech companies use it to drive us to buy their next generation phone/TV/whatever for fear our existing kit will become obsolete and we could lose memories, contacts or other important things for our daily lives. But it has also been used to drive political agendas – take the Cold War communist witch hunt driven by McCarthy in the 1950s – is there a red under your bed?

Fear in much of today’s brand storytelling sustains this sinister side. It is divisive. These are emotional and volatile times. 9/11 left room for a new fear-driven rhetoric which has had the biggest causal effect in several generations. Immediately afterwards, it was alleged that sales of Hummers and guns saw an unprecedented spike. But there are more contemporary examples, too. Take Brand Brexit: campaign images of queues of desperate Syrians with underlying messaging about protecting our jobs and our homes and our NHS, indeed our very existence from this imagined invasion. Brand Trump, whose pre-election campaign played up any dirt they could uncover in the Hilary Clinton camp, irrespective of truth, in order to plant the subconscious (or not) question ‘Are you really going to trust this woman to keep you safe?’ And so it goes on.

So, fear. An emotion for our times. It changes behaviours, drives us to do things we may not otherwise consider. We go the dinner when we are really too tired in case we miss something; we buy the next phone even though we probably can’t afford it; we donate to the charity because of what might happen if we don’t. It’s probably time to throw a jolly Hallowe’en party to lighten the mood. But make sure you check under the bed first.

Clout is a strategic creative agency that helps organisations of all shapes and sizes to overcome their challenges. Wrestling with something we could help with? Click here to get in touch.