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Positively frightening

As marketers know all too well, Project Fear won’t win hearts or minds
It’s a shock to see brands openly exploiting the dark side of the emotional spectrum
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Of the seven universal human emotions, five are negative: anger, sadness, fear, disgust, contempt.

One can swing either way – surprise – leaving just joy as the sole representative waving the flag for positivity.

Evolution, it seems, has placed a bigger wager on helping us avoid harm than attracting us to life’s goodies. Yet modern branding is almost unerringly about coming at things the other way round. It has become so relentlessly positive that attending a brand workshop these days feels like being part of a cult.

Even in brand models, and even when contrasting the brand with an alternative, marketers blanch at the slightest negative expression. One recently told me she wouldn’t tolerate the word “can’t” anywhere in the strategic definition. In branding, there really is no such word.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. Early brands prodded and goaded the negative self by evoking how disgusting you would feel to have BO, or how worthy of contempt you would be as the seven-stone weakling getting sand kicked in your face.

Then brands realised they could make more friends by presenting the same themes in an upbeat way – because people would bring their negative emotions with them anyway, and make their own links.

That’s how positive messages like “Persil washes whiter” worked. Was it about the joy of whiteness? Or the fear of being the mum who sent her kid out in the not-quite-so-white shirt?

Today, even that coyness looks crude. Modern brands make you feel good about the problem, as well as the solution: a kid’s dirty shirt is a sign of good parenting.

Marketers have become so adept at neutralising negative emotions with remorseless positivity, and consumers have become so used to being courted this way, that it’s a shock to see brands openly exploiting the dark side of the spectrum.

The Corsodyl campaign is a recent example – where a woman spits out blood that’s come from her gums. Many will recoil at the scarlet in the sink, but presumably the brand is winning on cut-through.


Another brand to opt for old-fashioned scaremongering is the Conservative Party. In the London mayoral election, it invoked the spectre of Islamist extremism in an attempt to undermine Labour’s Sadiq Khan.

For the European Union referendum, David Cameron has raised the stakes even from there, implying that we’d be signing up for another war if we put a cross in the wrong box. It won’t just be gums bleeding but Europe itself.

Some commentators have sought to justify the tactic by pointing out that fear is a vital human emotion with a responsibility for keeping us safe. It is. But here’s what they get wrong: we reserve our bitterest bile for those who trigger it speciously.

London showed what happens then: the other emotions that sit alongside it – anger, disgust, contempt – come to the fore, and, well, goodbye, Zac Goldsmith.

Perhaps the Remain team should get away from their focus groups and spend a day in a mainstream brand workshop. They’d see how modern marketers work with fears and lace them into dreams, in even the most unpromising categories. Evoking the joy of sex for denture-wearers? Laddering up to leadership from a start point of incontinence? No such word as can’t.

And Cameron could do worse than recognise that people will bring their fears, justified or not, to the ballot box anyway. Does he really have to whip them up so flagrantly and risk a backlash? What’s wrong with talking about peace and prosperity and letting people’s own limbic systems determine whether palms should sweat at the prospect of the converse?

It would be an irony if fear itself were to be the one thing that should be feared by Project Fear. Perhaps it won’t come to that. Choosing a future is not the same as choosing a detergent, and perhaps the team has the all evidence it needs to prove that, in binary, high-stakes decisions, you can’t win by being nice.

That said, if their gamble backfires and – surprise! – Leave prevails, moderate pro-Europeans like me will end up firmly on that negative emotional spectrum: somewhere between sadness and spitting blood.

Scare tactics

In 1964, Lyndon B Johnson’s US presidential campaign changed the rulebook for political advertising with the, still compelling, “Daisy” commercial. A simple message simply told, it consists of basically two scenes: a child haphazardly counts the petals on a daisy on a lazy summer’s day; as she gets to ten, something makes her look up – and we hear a military countdown from ten to zero culminating in the explosion of an atomic bomb.

The aim was to brand rival candidate Barry Goldwater as a warmonger who would risk nuclear conflict. The spot aired only once, before the Goldwater camp complained and had it withdrawn. That turned out to be a mistake, as “Daisy” became news itself, gaining constant repetition in news bulletins.

Johnson won the election by a landslide and fear campaigning has become all but imperative in elections ever since.