Should we use fear in our messages?

Should we use fear in our messages?

I’m not a fan of using fear to motivate action.

While I recognize that it can be attention-getting, it seems to push most people to tune-out the message, bury their heads in the sand and feel hopeless & helpless about the problem.

I’m guilty of reacting that way myself.

Changing the channel or pressing the mute button when graphic anti-smoking ads come on, when I hear the first few notes of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel”, or when Sally Struthers appears on screen (I’m dating myself here).

It’s not that I don’t care about those issues; rather, I don’t feel like getting sucked into those negative feels while I’m just trying to watch TV.

There’s been something else on my mind about using fear in our messages, beyond the question of does it work or not.

And that’s the cost of using fear. Should we use it, even if we can use it?

Two thoughts keep bouncing around my frontal lobe on this question.

How does using fear impact our brand?

I don’t mean “our brand” as the organization or agency you work for. I’m talking about our larger, umbrella brand.

The “saving the planet” brand.

If all our messages about protecting and saving natural resources make people feel scared, then that will likely become the default association with the cause.

“Oh no, here comes the enviros…get ready to feel like crap.” Cue the mental mute button they’ll use to tune us out.

Protecting the planet doesn’t have to feel like a drag and it will be a lot harder to engage more people in the cause if it does.

The “saving the planet” brand can be so much more than this.

It can be fun, it can be social and uniting, it can be meaningful and purposeful, and it can be empowering.

Just writing those words fill me with energy and drive!

Plus, adding more fear to the fire may not be necessary.

This climate action study released by IKEA earlier this year indicated that over 70% of people already feel anxiety and fear about climate change. 87% are ready to take action, they just need to know how.

Seems like the greatest opportunity to create change is helping people know what they can do, and not in growing the percentage of people who feel fear and anxiety.


Where do we go once we’ve used fear?

This thought prompted me to look into the spectrum of negative and positive emotions, and I discovered the Feeling Wheel.

Fear (via its synonym, scared) is one of three negative categories of feelings or emotions. More specific emotions in this category include: anxious, insecure, helpless, confused, discouraged, foolish, insignificant.

Yikes. I’m ready to crawl back into bed.

None of the associated emotions in this category feel like they would lead individuals to be ready, willing or able to take action.

So, if our messages lead with a heavy emotion like fear, then what?

Do subsequent messages lean into fear even more, pulling on more emotionally-heavy levers? If so, then I’d question the ethics of doing so and be even more concerned about the impact on our brand.

Would upping the ante put us at risk of over-exaggerating the situation in order to provoke even greater fear? If so, then that leaves us vulnerable to getting called out for misinformation and hurting the credibility of our cause.

Or would we flip the message towards more positive emotions after triggering fear? This is probably the approach taken most often: hook ’em with fear and then celebrate them for contributing to the cause.

But why the bait and switch – the emotional ping-ponging – when positive emotions are there for us to use?

While fear can be used to motivate action, and in some cases it may even work, it doesn’t feel like an appropriate first choice to me.

Increasingly our audiences are primed and ready to do something, but are uncertain about what that thing should be.

And my hope is that we’ll take fear off the table and put optimism, excitement and confidence on.

So that our audiences will want to turn the volume up instead of hitting the mute button.