Fear appeals refer to emotionally-provocative forms of communication that psychologically motivate consumers to make purchasing decisions based on perceptions of significant or impending risks to themselves, their loved ones, or their lives. Many advertisers relentlessly rely on fear appeals to promote their brands on social media, but is this necessarily the best strategy? Let’s examine what researchers have found:

Health Scares

According to a recent compilation of 60 years’ worth of research on fear appeals in advertising and behavioral change strategies, using fear appeals targeted at an individual’s health are less effective than providing information that helps people respond to health concerns more effectively.

If you are attempting to promote a health product or service designed to help others live happier, healthier lives, then you would likely get better results from an advertising campaign that emphasizes positive outcomes for your target audience, instead of scaring them into making a purchase with frightening images and gloom-and-doom messages in your ads.

Financial Products

If your brand sells financial information, products or other services, then imbuing your social campaigns with ads predicated on fear (e.g., impending stock market crash, another housing industry collapse, fears of not saving enough for retirement, fears of drowning in debt, etc.) might not work to your advantage in the long-run.

As MarketWatch explains, many Americans are plagued with financial anxiety, and provoking those fears through fear-driven ads could have the opposite effect by driving them away from your brand’s social pages. This happens because financial anxiety is powerful enough to incite strong feelings of denial among those who are struggling with their money. You can avoid this by revamping your advertising messages to emphasize positive outcomes instead. For example, instead of highlighting the countless risks associated with high levels of consumer debt in your ads, create a visualization of the debt-free future that people could attain if they utilize your products/services.


Most people care very deeply about their family members, so promoting ads with terrifying “What if?” scenarios or depressing images could backfire in some cases. Using fear appeals related to a person’s loved ones may be effective in the short-run for some folks, but as a long-term social advertising strategy, you could scare off more potential customers than you bring in.

Similar to the areas of personal health and finance, you should tweak your ad copy and imagery to reflect the positive outcomes that your products/services could bring to these people’s lives. Instead of sponsoring ads with crying children or stressed out adults, adjust your strategy to reflect happier instances, such as family members smiling and embracing, or even a simple image of two family members holding hands.

Fear appeals may be popular in social media ads, but that doesn’t always mean they’re the most effective option. Be sure to thoroughly study your target audience and test different ads with different tones to see whether fear appeals should be eliminated from your marketing strategy.