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5 examples of anxiety-inducing marketing

Is there anyone left out there who still doubts marketing’s power to influence people?

We sure hope not.

As powerful new tools like marketing AI give brands and marketers new access to humankind’s once private inner worlds, their power to influence people is expanding rapidly. The question is, will that power be used for good, or for evil? Will unscrupulous marketers looking to exploit vulnerable human emotions like anxiety simply be more easily able to do so, or will the marketing industry choose to walk a higher path?

Anxiety disorders impact the lives of more than 6 million adults in the United States alone. And, while anxiety-inducing advertising may not affect everyone negatively, it behooves brands to tread carefully when using negative emotions in the endless quest for consumer engagement. Public awareness of the true impact of mental health issues has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, and many brands have taken note.

But some brands, it seems, didn’t get the memo yet…


1) Scare tactics

It has to be noted that there are definitely some times when a little anxiety is appropriate for an advertisement. This Spotify horror movie spoof is one such anxiety-inducing ad that gets our stamp of approval. Why is this case different? Because unlike advertisements designed to manipulate consumers’ deep-seated anxiety without their realizing it, this ad lets the viewer in on what’s going on. The viewer is an active participant in triggering their own fear/anxiety response, much like a movie theater patron who is treated to a trailer for a horror film.

The lesson: Always ask yourself if anxiety is appropriate or manipulative for your campaign. If it isn’t appropriate, don’t do it.


2) Phobia-sploitation

5 examples of anxiety-inducing ads

Image credit: Kimberly-Clark

Healthy concerns about germs and hygiene are perfectly reasonable. However, Mysophobia – a pathological fear of contamination and germs – is a very real and very common affliction. There are a great many such pathological fears out there, and the anxiety and behaviors they cause can have very real (and very dangerous) consequences for those who have them. Playing off those fears may be a great way to move a few units here and there, but do the ends justify the means?

The lesson: always consider your campaign’s impact on your target audience. ALL of your audience.


3) Body-shaming for bra sales

5 examples of anxiety-inducing marketing

Image credit: Warner’s

Making women feel bad about how they looked was a marketing industry staple for many, many years. Savvy marketers learned early on that very few people are entirely comfortable with their body, and that tapping into people’s sense of shame and anxiety about their looks was a great way to sell them stuff. Don’t like your legs? Buy these pantyhose! Curly hair sucks. You need straighteners! Straight hair also sucks. Better get some curlers!

And on. And on. And on.

The good news is, the body-shaming marketing trend fell out of favour several decades ago, and the marketing industry has made great progress since then.

Or has it…

The lesson: don’t play off your audience’s insecurities. It’s mean.


4) Body-shaming: redux

5 examples of anxiety-inducing marketing

Image credit: Protein World

As it turns out, making people feel bad about how they look to get them to buy stuff STILL works in the new millennium! Yes, body anxiety is alive and well even today, and some less-than-scrupulous marketers still occasionally choose to exploit it for some reason.

The difference is, people are standing up and speaking out against it these days. This billboard from Protein World created an uproar in 2015 when it appeared on walls in New York City after being banned in the United Kingdom. People were understandably unimpressed and many took action. The results were pretty awesome:


The lesson: It’s 2018. Don’t even think about it.


5) Say no to scrollbait


When Chinese sneaker manufacturer Kaiwei Ni ran Instagram ads designed to look like a stray hair on users’ phone screens to induce them to swipe, few were impressed. Although the campaign did probably lead to an increased number of swipes redirecting users to the brand’s website, complaints quickly rolled in.  Instagram quickly took the ad down and disabled Kaiwei Ni’s ability to post ads on the platform in the future. It is unclear whether any of the Instagram users who were tricked into swiping made a purchase, but it is a safe bet that the brand damage Kaiwei Ni suffered by being dishonest was not worth it.

The lesson: mess with user experience and suffer the consequences 

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