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Brands too should want you to panic: How fear in advertising can work to energise action on the climate emergency

Greta Thunberg’s now iconic headline “I want you to panic” is not just a direct response to the already tired and overintellectualised climate discourse but also a great communication strategy for brands wanting to support global climate action.

Green communication is not an easy sell to the public at large. Creating and sustaining public interest in the environment has been an ongoing struggle.

Not all environmental degradation is immediately tangible and urgent, so the way such information is presented is critical.

Choosing the right type of emotion is critical

Messages designed with an emotional appeal have become popular and persuasive. But choosing the right type of emotion is critical to driving action against our common threat of global warming.

In the positive-negative spectrum of emotions, hope and fear are the usual suspects in cause-marketing campaigns.

Choosing between one extreme and the other is often a matter of brand alignment (can my brand have a fearful voice? Or should it have a hopeful tone?) and target audience alignment (will my audience be more receptive to a positive or a negative message?).

However, global and local perspectives are new variables considered on a study entitled “What Sells Better in Green Communications: Fear or Hope?” Conducted by three professors from Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University and published by the Journal of Advertising Research.

The paper confirmed that fear is more effective when the environmental issue is framed as global, whereas hope is more effective when the issue is framed as local.

For example, a neighborly competition in Gainesville, Florida, where the city-owned power utility’s records are considered public data allowed local firm Energyit to build a site, gainesville-green.com, that labels the relative consumption of individual homes with colored pushpins: red for high bills, green for low, yellow and orange for in-between.

The gamified approach is one where we get motivated through mechanics like points, leaderboards and others compelling residents to greenify their pushpins. That’s hope in action.

In theory, this is all good and well, but the reality is that people are concerned more commonly about global problems, over which they have less influence, than they are about local problems, on which they can act (García-Mira, Eulogio, and Romay, 2005; Uzzell, 2000).

Polar bear extinction is considered a global issue, because it is an indicator of global warming. In this “environmental hyperopia”, fear or, panic, may be what people need. If effective marketing is about being customer-centric, in the case of green marketing effectiveness needs a citizen-centric focus.

Exposure to fear in relation to the environment increased pro-environmental intentions more than exposure to positive messages

In Australia, an experimental online survey of a representative sample of the population, part of a broader study published on the International Journal of Advertising and entitled “Environmental threat appeals in green advertising” reasserted the role of fear arousal.

Survey results indicated that exposure to fear in relation to the environment increased pro-environmental intentions more than exposure to positive messages.

As the music – Last Rites by Megadeth – ramps up, the action kicks in as alligators hunt, snakes rattle, lightning strikes and volcanoes explode, reminding humans to respect the planet.

During this year’s Earth Day, Apple released its Don’t Mess with Mother Nature video, as part of its longstanding “Shot on iPhone” campaigns.

The film starts with colorful images of animals like seals, reef fish, owls and elephants before a cascading avalanche sets a seriously edgy tone.

As the music – Last Rites by Megadeth – ramps up, the action kicks in as alligators hunt, snakes rattle, lightning strikes and volcanoes explode, reminding humans to respect the planet. Not necessarily scary, but fearful.

Controversial climate ad in the UK

Back in 2009, as part of the £6 million Act on CO2 campaign, the UK government displayed often-unseen bravery in communicating environmental issues.

The controversial TVC had over 200 complaints lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority.

It begins with a heartwarming scene of a father reading a bedtime story to his daughter with an unexpected turn into a terrifying tale of drowning puppies, rabbits dying of thirst and the end of the world as we know it.    

That said, ethical implications on the use of fear appeals should be considered.

However, and despite its ban, ethics was not the argument used by Downing Street petitioners but the veracity of evidence that humans are causing climate change.

Joan Ruddock, then energy and climate change minister, stood firm for the campaign backing the use of IPCC research and that the ad was not targeted at children but to adults with a proposition to “protecting the next generations”.

In her own words: “Climate Change is not just an issue for generations in the future; it’s happening now; it affects us and our children, and we owe it to them to take action now to prevent its worst effects.”

The Act on CO2 campaign was a response to research by YouGov that suggests that more than half of the UK public think climate change will have no impact on them. Only one in five (18 per cent) of the 1039 respondents thought that climate change will take effect during their children’s lifetime.

The survey found that 74 per cent of people said they would take immediate action to change their lifestyle now if they knew that climate change would affect their children’s lives.

Since exceptions make the rule, fearful executions that communicate hope are also possible, as demonstrated by challenger brand Ovo Energy.

Set to the metal track Raining Blood by Slayer, the apocalyptic TVC shows household appliances plugged into the earth as a metaphor for renewable energy’s potential to power the world.

Televisions on a beach broadcast climate change deniers, whose words are rebutted by the iconic call-to-arms “Get mad” speech from 1976 film Network.

The accompanying print and outdoor executions were depicted with illustrations of climate change deniers such as Donald Trump literally burning against solar power.

Negative stimuli in our brain are processed almost instantly…positive experiences must be held in the brain for at least 12 seconds before they are stored as long-term memory

According to Julia Haber, Clinical Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Fordham University, “[The] human tendency for negative bias evolved over time to help our ancestors survive by being responsive to potential threats.

As such, negative stimuli in our brain are processed almost instantly, ensuring it’s stored in our long-term memory.” On the other hand, positive experiences must be held in the brain for at least 12 seconds before they are stored as long-term memory.

Authenticity and brand managers

Authenticity has been one of the most over-utilised terms in marketing these days. Both brand managers and their agencies alike have emphatically shared different research pieces about how much customers value authentic brands.

Yet, few have actually dropped their happy-go-lucky veneers of positive communications for more vulnerable and, at times, fearful communications.

To continue preserving our species against the real and common threat of global warming, brands need to hit harder on their communications efforts. If fear is the currency for action, panic seems like a bargain for a hopeful shared future.

Sérgio Brodsky (L. LM, MBA) is the founder and principal at Surge. Follow him on Twitter: @brandKzar.


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. Spinifex may be inconvenient or annoying at times, but in fact, it’s highly resilient in a hostile environment and essential to nurturing biodiversity and holding the topsoil together. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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