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Fear Mongering In Advertising: Trends, Uses, Cases Studies

“What do you do when a competing fast food chain gives coffee away free to attract new customers? If you’re Dunkin’ Donuts, you equate trying that coffee to suffering a painful and violent death at the hands of a sociopath. Duh.” – Business Week

In 2006, McDonald’s pulled off a huge campaign to promote its new McCafe drink by giving a free coffee away with every meal during the month of October. In a classic, yet tongue-in-cheek example of fear mongering, Dunkin’ Donuts launched a response campaign that portrayed consumers taking advantage of free “flying” lessons. In the commercials, consumers called to ask about a flyer for the free lesson. A voice instructs them to travel to an abandoned airstrip, where they would sign a waiver, and then were tied to the hood of a car that careens forward and stops abruptly, leaving the poor adult “flying” to his mangled doom.   The commercial ends with the line, “Just because something is free doesn’t mean it’s worth trying…We’ve been using same fresh-brewed coffee blend for 50 years.”

Memorable? You bet. But would this ad really convince people not to try free coffee? Apparently not, as McDonald’s McCafe brand has grown such that it is now a separate brand from the rest of the McDonald’s franchise, and is now measured on par with, if not above, that of Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee brands.

Though the fast food industry itself has been the target of fear mongering in advertising (not only is it the cause of the entire obesity epidemic in America, but it also brainwashes our children with its irresistible plastic movie-themed toys in our kids meals. How do we save ourselves?!), it seems that nothing, person or company alike, is spared. The ad industry itself has come under scrutiny, with a notable example of Director Morgan Spurlock’s NO AD: New York online effort to remove all advertising from Times Square. The site laments how “corrupt” Times Square has become as a corporate money-sucking darling, and advocates for consumers to “clean it up” by removing the ads. Am I the only one who feels that Times Square wouldn’t be Times Square without the ads?


And, of course, fear mongering wouldn’t be fear mongering if it didn’t address social and political issues. Perhaps the most ridiculous example is this below PSA in which a Christian rights group likens gay marriage to a gathering storm.

Another political example comes in the form of the federal government’s recently released new mandatory packaging for cigarettes. In an attempt to scare smokers away from the effects of their habit, the federal government is mandating that all cigarettes sold in the United States beginning in 2012 show some variant of the following picture, along with a prevalent warning on the packaging. This does away with branding as we know it in cigarettes. The only question that remains is how effective this will be in scaring often loyal smokers, most of whom love their hobby, off of the nicotine.


Fear mongering is a tool that can be used in many different ways – by tongue-in-cheek advertisers exaggerating consequences for what happens when you give in to the word “free,” to directors trying out their powers of social change (see: Super Size Me, another Morgan Spurlock gem targeting the fast food industry), to, most prevalently, advocates of certain political and social change groups attempting to promote their (in)tolerance, as the case may be. It’s impossible to cover the scope of fear mongering ads circulating in our world today, though its actual effectiveness may be close to nonexistent. But make no mistake that whatever you choose to eat, do, or believe in, people will keep trying to scare you.



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