Headlines as Scare Tactics: Manipulative or Pure Genius?



June 24, 2013 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

Everyone is afraid of something whether they openly admit it or not. It’s no secret that marketers prey on these underlying fears by utilizing persuasive copy and headlines. The goal of using headlines as a scare tactic is to pull on those natural fears and entice their audience to read beyond the headline.

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion provides a visual understanding of intense emotional responses such as terror and then milder feelings such as apprehension. These types of fear resonate with everybody: rejection, loss, pain, and failure.

If marketers understand how powerful words can produce emotional reactions that result in conversions, they can successfully write headlines that grab their readers’ attentions similar to driving past a car accident: they try not to look, but they can’t help it.

Never Underestimate the Power of Words

Readers scan over headlines in a split second and decide whether to continue reading or move on. According to Copyblogger, 8 out of 10 people will read the headline, but only 2 will read the full article. If writers and marketers want to produce a shock factor when people read their headlines, every word must count.

Some words trigger strong emotional reactions while others do not. Altering one word in the headline can drastically change the results you achieve. Words like proven, save, safety, discovery, guaranteed, warning, crisis, and failure produce strong emotional reactions.

Consider each word in your headline and ask yourself if it’s producing the kind of emotional reaction you desire. If not, replace it. Never underestimate the power that words can have on people’s emotions. Know how you’d like readers to emotionally respond to your headline and choose your words wisely.

Emotional Advertising Trumps Rational

Both scholars and psychologists have studied consumer behavior and how people process commercial messages. The marketing message stimulates the senses, resulting in an emotional or rational response, which ultimately determines behavior.

According to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, emotional ads are more profitable than rational based marketing. Consumers who respond to emotional advertising are also more likely to share the product/service and are less likely to be concerned with price. Emotional appeals are successful for persuasion because they resonate deeper than logical messages, which result in more actions, shares, and conversions.

Contrary to popular belief, fear can be perceived as either positive or negative. Some people seek adrenaline-pumping experiences such as sky diving while others avoid taking risks at all costs. Consumer behavior studies reveal that people click for fear over happiness when they read headlines. This doesn’t mean that everybody enjoys being scared, but they perceive the article as an answer to their fear, which actually eliminates anxiety.

Alleviate Fear by Clicking Here

Fear driven headlines convince people that negative consequences will occur if they don’t listen and take action. They click not only because of fear, but also because of hope in the solution that the writer presents in the headline. Security and insurance companies have mastered the use of scare tactics in marketing campaigns.

OnStar persuades consumers that a crash may occur if they choose not to purchase their product. ADT slid pop-up boxes under apartment resident’s doors with the headline, “Breaking into your apartment is easier than you think” As you can imagine, residents questioned their safety and clicked for fear to ADT’s website, which resulted in hundreds of unique traffic visits and client acquisitions.

Studies show that when marketers use two versions of the same headline, people click on the headline that entices them with fear rather than a positive message. According to Science Daily, combining fear and emotion produces accountability and hope rather than a feel-good headline. For example, a headline titled, “Are You Vulnerable to Skin Cancer?” will spark fear in readers more than an article titled, “5 Reasons Why You Should Wear Sunscreen.” Psychologists believe that people click for fear due to a lack of knowledge. They fear the uncertainty of the future. By clicking on the article, they hope to gain the knowledge that the headline promises them.

Measure the Emotional Value of Your Headline

While marketers can’t anticipate every reader’s emotional reaction to their headline, there are keywords that cater to specific emotions as well as resources to determine a headline’s emotional value. The Advanced Marketing Institute analyzes your headline and calculates the marketing value that it will produce. The program uses special algorithms to quickly compare the headline words with the words from the impact list according to industry (EMV words).

The results are organized into three distinctive categories: Intellectual Words are effective at offering logic, reasoning, and evaluation. Empathetic Words bring out strong emotional reactions in people, and Spiritual Words have the ability to reach people at a deep emotional level. The most effective headlines will have 50 to 75 percent EMV words.

Don’t think of scare tactics that lure readers into an article as manipulative and unethical. Instead, think about the headline as an opportunity to grab the reader’s attention, empathize with their emotions, and present them with a solution to alleviate their fears.


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