The Wonder of Fear

Fear may be as old as life on Earth. It is fundamental, a deeply wired reaction that evolved over the course of eons to protect organisms against threats, real and imagined. Fear may be as simple as a cringe of an antenna in a snail that is touched, or as complex as existential meltdowns in people. What strikes me as interesting is what we can learn about marketing from how we experience fear, whether we’re talking about booking hotels or making popcorn. So first, what about fear attracts us?

Some of the main chemicals that contribute to the “fight or flight” response are also involved in other positive emotional states, such as happiness and excitement. As such, it makes sense that the high arousal state we experience during a scare is also experienced in a more positive light – it, like sex or food, sparks the brain in a similar manner. But what makes the difference between getting a “rush” and feeling completely terrorized? Context vs. biology. When our evolved, rational brain gives feedback to our “emotional” brain and we perceive ourselves as being in a safe space, we can quickly shift the way we experience the arousal state, going from a state of fear to one of enjoyment. When you enter a haunted house, for example, you anticipate a ghoul jumping out at you, knowing all the while it isn’t really a threat. You quickly relabel the experience. In contrast, if you were walking in a dark alley at night and a stranger began chasing you, both your emotional and thinking areas of the brain would be in agreement that the situation is dangerous.

The fear reaction starts in an area of the brain called the amygdala, and spreads through the body to make adjustments for the best response. The amygdala is dedicated to detecting the emotional salience of the stimuli – how much something stands out to us. For example, a threat stimulus, such as the sight of a predator nearby, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers release of stress hormones and sympathetic nervous system. The brain becomes hyper-alert, pupils dilate, and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down. And it all takes place without us thinking about it.

But the hippocampus is closely connected with the amygdala and allows us to contextualize fear, helping the brain interpret a perceived threat. They are involved in a higher-level processing of context, which helps a person know whether a perceived threat is real. For instance, seeing a lion in the wild can trigger a strong fear reaction, but the response to a view of the same lion at a zoo is more of curiosity. This is because the hippocampus and the frontal cortex process contextual information, and inhibitory pathways dampen the amygdala fear response.

Fear creates distraction, which can be a positive experience. When something scary happens, in that moment, we are on high alert and not preoccupied with other things that might be on our mind. So context, distraction, social learning  all have potential to influence the way we experience and internalize fear. When we are able to recognize what is and isn’t a real threat, relabel an experience and enjoy the thrill of that moment, we are ultimately at a place where we feel in control. That perception of control is vital to how we experience and respond to fear. And we can take something from that to apply more broadly to marketing and advertising as a whole.

Creating a visceral response, something that triggers the brain and forces it to weigh the primal against the rational causes us to pay attention. It also creates a memory. Whether fear of longing, the most startling truth about marketing is that we don’t think our way to logical solutions. We feel our way to reason. Emotions are the substrate, the base layer of neural circuitry underpinning even rational deliberation. Emotions don’t hinder decisions, they constitute the foundations on which they are made. Emotional response to an advertisement, rather than the ad’s actual content, produces great influence on the intent of a consumer to buy a product. Likeability is the most predictive measure that can help ascertain if an advertisement will increase the sales of a brand. But the goal should be do go beyond the sale and imprint a brand on a person’s mind. Things like fear, love, lust, they all produce reactions that are burned into the brain, resulting in long-term associations with the brand.

In the modern marketing and advertising ecosystem, the human brain has developed some complex recognition patterns that marketers must get past to influence their audience with a new experience and redirect their future decisions. Understanding neural and biometric responses to an campaign or strategy can paint a clear picture of the audience’s emotional state to drive brand recall and desirability, thus providing a roadmap to greater brand loyalty.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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