To break through the clutter, some brands decide to shock consumers.

Creepy children. Disturbing images. Frightening mascots. Sometimes marketers go out of their way to intentionally frighten consumers using a phenomenon reporter by T.L. Stanley calls “scarevertising.” His report follows:

Scarevertising isn’t exactly new. Hollywood movie studios and public service announcements pioneered the hair-raising advertising and promotional trend many years ago. But more and more companies are using the approach now to shill products and services that have nothing to do with horror flicks or texting while driving.


TDA_Boulder wanted to break out of the mundane, talking head approach usually associated with bank ads. Instead, executives aimed for a thought-provoking way to push free checking, given that consumers are often skeptical about free stuff. The ad, Bargain Dummy, starring a traumatized dummy owner and her lifelike castoff, plays with that idea.

“We’re acknowledging that free isn’t always such a good thing, especially if you’re bringing a demonic doll back to your house,” said Jeremy Seibold, creative director at TDA_Boulder. We went for a subtle tone – as subtle as you can be with a terrifying dummy.”

In a jam-packed ad environment, it’s no wonder that brands and their ad agencies are using scare tactics, said Peter Sealey, marketing consultant and former head of marketing at Coca-Cola and Columbia Pictures.

“Job 1 of advertising is to get consumers to focus their eyeballs on that 30-second spot or that stunt,” Sealey said. “The initial grab for attention is so damn important.”

But savvy consumers, bombarded with marketing and armed with DVRs and other ad-skipping devices, won’t be impressed if the commercial is just weird for its own sake, he said. It needs a tangible connection to the brand and should cement the company’s message.

Seibold agreed, saying, “If the scary ad isn’t tied to the product attributes -– if it doesn’t come from something genuine –- it’s a misfire. Consumers might watch, but they won’t remember the message or the brand.”

It’s tough to say, then, if a genre movie-style ad for the Japanese tire company AutoWay actually moved the needle, business-wise, when it launched late last year. But the spot, which came equipped with a stern pre-roll health warning, has racked up more than 8.6 million views on YouTube. It’s nightmare inducing, but what did it really accomplish for its product?

The jury is still out on McDonald’s new mascot, Happy, an anthropomorphic red box with a face and giant teeth introduced to the U.S. in May. The social media chatter alone has brought the burger giant a load of buzzworthy free publicity, though most commenters called the character “terrifying.” But young kids, the Happy Meal target audience, haven’t seemed nearly as freaked out by it (despite a Photoshop contest that substituted Happy for the villains in iconic horror movie posters).

Earlier this spring, a hidden-camera prank for fright flick Lord of Tears scared the crap out of some unsuspecting adventurers in an abandoned Scottish hospital. Most of the looky-loos came unglued when they ran across a creepy costumed character named Owlman, planted there by ad execs. The video follows a number of stunts for films like Devil’s Due and Carrie that have left members of the public twitchy and disturbed, while millions of people watched their reactions on YouTube. None of those films turned into mainstream blockbusters.

Some brands plant their flag in horror themes, whether or not there seems to be a direct parallel with their products. Zombies and evil spirits have been de rigueur for a British cellphone company called Phones 4U, and complaints from TV viewers have meant the commercials air only late at night when children aren’t likely to see them.

While there’s some upside in generating a potential viral video or frightening the masses into talking about your ad, the tactic could backfire, Sealey said.

“It can’t be ghoulish for its own sake,” he said. “People will sniff it out if it’s just gratuitous, and then you’ve dinged your brand. If you don’t do it well, you probably shouldn’t do it at all.”