The Psychology of “Scary” Brand Campaigns

The Psychology of “Scary” Brand Campaigns


This article originally appeared on Branding Times

The month leading up to Halloween is filled with the chill of fall air and stockpiling bite-size candies to hand out to children. Everybody loves getting “spooky,” especially major brands. Once September rolls around, some brands focus their product mix and advertising on pumpkin-flavored products, while others choose to mix up their communication practices with creative and scary advertisements.

But do scary campaigns really have a purpose beyond inducing panic and nightmares? The answer is resounding “yes.” Ads that capture consumer attention drive growth and strengthen relationships, and they can make people feel something on an emotional level – the goal for all marketers.

Why do people love getting scared? Simple: it’s an “exciting” sensation. It’s why the
“Friday the 13th” movies were so successful in theaters. Even if we sense outright fear, the human brain commits strong emotions and their associated experiences to memory. This is how consumers can feel a connection, even nostalgia, towards scary media.

For companies, scary advertisements capture more attention than those focusing on product benefits alone. Once a scary experience occurs, the brain recognizes the emotional shift toward terror and then records the memory for future retrieval.

This subconscious process began evolutionarily with cave people understanding that the roar of a lion meant impending danger, compelling them to run fast in the other direction. This mental shortcut proved valuable in helping to escape danger by heightening awareness, focusing attention, and increasing reaction time. Today, creative departments for major brands have tapped into the same psychological components to spice up advertisements leading up to Halloween.

In 2014, IKEA Singapore and BBH launched a “haunted” campaign that was modeled after a famous scene from “The Shining”. BBH brilliantly recreated the tricycle scene in which the young child navigates the hallways until he reaches the suspenseful climax of meeting two similarly dressed people blocking his path. In the movie, these people were the ghosts of past hotel guests. In the commercial, they were his parents calling him over to the checkout line.

Creating heightened levels of suspense works brilliantly for advertisers when executed correctly. The fright-filled nature of Halloween-themed advertisements offers creative minds the ability to flip traditional advertising on its head and create a memorable scene that ensures the brand is the center of at least one nightmare during the run of the campaign.

Psychologically, the same part of the brain that guides the “fight or flight” response regulates our responses to fear. Just as the mind can go from seeking a fright in one instance, it can go “on guard” with similar features to the ones listed above based upon past experiences that have been committed to memory.

IKEA is not alone in leveraging Halloween advertisements to build brand awareness and recall. Brands like Dirt Devil use scare tactics to differentiate itself from competitors in the traditionally functional space of vacuum cleaner advertisements.

By borrowing artistic elements from Hollywood, Dirt Devil was able to showcase the power of their products’ suction in the context of a parody of a scary film. Not only did the advert capture attention and build suspense, but it also ended with a comedic spin on a classic special effect laden ending.

Similarly, Nike tapped into the slasher-movie culture by debuting their ad titled “Horror”during the 2000 Olympics. This ad featured a young woman, alone in an empty house, being stalked by a masked serial killer. After a brief foot pursuit through the dark woods, the young woman is able to outrun her attacker…due to her superior shoes.

At the end of the day, Nike’s scary tactics paid off. Thousands of viewers saw the ad live, and another million heard about the spot in the days after. As we can see from Nike, IKEA, and Dirt Devil, advertisements that capture attention and pique interest through the use of horror-themed plot lines tap into the deeper level psychological processes that are attractive to watch and become memorable for years to come.

Marketers, Agencies: Don’t Pass Over Millennials

Marketers, Agencies: Don’t Pass Over Millennials

As an aspiring brand strategist and researcher, I spend a lot of time trying to get into the heads of the “dreaded bunch”: darn Millennials with their insatiable demands, expanding minds, and lack of brand loyalty (often called nomadic). This crowd has a reputation of being a thorn in the side of brands of all sizes often leading to poorly planned brand executions. The solution is so obvious. So mind blowing, that it just might work. That’s right. I’m suggesting what most dread: hire them.

Incorporate Millennials into your culture. Encourage them to educate your staff. Most importantly, allow them to lead your company’s expansion and growth in the coming years. Millennials are often overlooked for mid-level job positions at agencies and client side companies due to a common perception held by older hiring managers who value experience. While some Millennials lack on the job experience, they may possess a native understanding of how their peers view marketing and advertising efforts and what it takes to uncover the deep seated insights that drive them. The best way to market to Gen Y is to have them quite literally market to themselves.

Some brands have understood this, however. The effort to include Millennials is displayed prominently on the digital front. Social media influencers saw a rapid expansion across multiple platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, & Instagram. These influencers, often peers, leverage their personalities and real life anecdotes to influence millennial purchase decisions by up to 20%-50%.

What happens when agencies and client side companies alike neglect refreshing their workforce with Millennials? They miss out. Take the example of Adidas. An independent filmmaker created a short spot that blew Adidas’s previous creative out of the water and attracted mass attention, without ever receiving a response from the brand’s communication department. Adidas missed out on a captivating piece of creative that combined a riveting story. This short story is one that draws an emotional response, as well as artistically showcasing the brand’s purpose. Take a look for yourself. Bravo, Eugene Merher!

Garrett Meccariello is an aspiring brand strategist based out of NYC. In his free time he can be found building the next great brand, exploring the city, and eating a lot of cured meat and cheese.

I Fell For It.

I Fell For It.

I walked right in, handed over my money and did exactly what they wanted me to do… I Instagrammed my hand dipped Magnum ice cream bar. “Why is this a problem?”, the ice cream addicted reader might ask? It was all a clever advertising activation.

My mad creation in the graffiti photo booth at the Magnum Pleasure Store in New York City.

The Magnum “Pleasure Store” located in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City is a textbook advertising activation. Customers select a chocolate or vanilla base. Then they choose one of three chocolate coatings and add up to 3 dry toppings, ranging from dried fruits to Himalayan pink salt. What seems like a pleasant place to take your significant other for ice cream at the end of a date is really a well thought out content generator.


What does an activation actually mean? A brand activation occurs when a company (or its advertising agency) brings a product to the consumer in an innovative, personal way. These activations are created in large cities with temporary “pop-up” stores. Activations differ from print, digital, or TV advertisements because they create an experience around consuming the product. This experience creates an emotional, tangible connection between the brand and the consumer.

The Magnum NYC pop up was no different from other similar concepts, except for the ace hidden up their sleeves: photo booths. Specially designed photo booths encouraged visitors to snap pictures on their cell phones. The photos of freshly dipped dessert bars are then posted to social media sites. The insides of the booths are decorated with four different designs spanning simple, artsy, and everything in between. The outside panels cleverly featured #magnumpleasurestore and #magnum to entice visitors to post their custom creations on their feeds.

MAGNUM New York Calendar Listing Image 4 web.jpeg

There IS a method to this madness. What if I told you that Magnum didn’t need to sell more units of their ice cream bars? In fact, last summer they beat Q3 sales expectations by 8%). You’d probably call me crazy and respond with something like: “of course they want to sell more ice cream bars; that’s why they charged me $7!”

Pause and let’s dive a little deeper. Remember when I said the store concept was an innovative content generator? Magnum, along with its team at KBS+, Mosaic, and Oglivy & Mather changed the way consumer brands incorporate experiential marketing into their mix. Not only did they have thousands of bragadocious millennials posting their personal creations all over social media, they actually made them pay to do so. Genious, right? The agency-client team created a low pressure environment encouraging customers to share their personal creations with social media friends. Thousands of impressions generated close to a million dollars in revenue and media for the company for a fraction of what the company typically would spend on a campaign.


I spent this past summer at one of the industry’s most well known advertising agencies and I fell for it. I paid to give Magnum access to my 400 followers. Honestly, I had an incredible time doing it.

Bravo Magnum. Bravo.

If you’re looking for a great ice cream spot or to take part in the experience, visit the New York City Magnum Pleasure Store at 134 Prince St, New York, NY 10012.

Garrett Meccariello is an aspiring brand manager based out of NYC. In his free time he can be found building the next great brand, exploring the city, and eating a lot of cured meat and cheese.


Seamlessly Integrating Personable Ad Copy

Seamlessly Integrating Personable Ad Copy

I am a man of many talents, but full disclosure, copywriting isn’t one of them.

Having acknowledged that shortcoming, you can understand why when I get energized when I see a great ad in public. On a recent walk down Broadway I passed a bus shelter with a JCDecaux rotating display piece featuring an ad from Seamless, a website offering on demand food delivery.

Seamless bus shelter ad by BBH New York

Something about this ad caught my eye. Was it the bright red background contrasting the grey city street behind it? Nope. Was it the bold font covering 60% of the space? Negative. Was it the company’s logo featured on the bottom of the display? Not at all.

It was the last three words of the four-word copy. I immediately identified with the statement, “is so Jersey”. As New Yorkers, we inherently think that we are superior to all others. From our amazing bagels to our handspun pizzas, we think we know what’s best. This is especially true when it comes to the friendly rivalry with our neighbors across the Hudson. We love our neighbors who travel through tunnels and over bridges to be here with us, but we can all agree that the different cultures and people make each state unique.

The Hudson River separates New York from New Jersey

Those three words are a great example of how a friendly rivalry can be incorporated into ad copy so that viewers immediately identify with the piece. Most marketers and advertisers struggle to come up with creative ideas with minimal amount of text to create the maximum amount of impact that resonates with the target market.

The idea of cooking your own food on that side of the river means that you cannot enjoy the restaurants on this side of the river available to New Yorkers. New York’s easily accessible food delivery culture makes it just as easy to order in from local eateries, as it is to take the time to go shopping and cook a meal for your self at home.


As someone who loves eating at restaurants, this ad hit the nail on the head by targeting my personal psychographics. These strings of thought being that; I dislike eating in, and that I don’t want to be considered a New Jerseyite (sorry guys, our pizza and bagels are better).

The copy of this ad is perfect for a New York street corner. It seamlessly (pun intended) identifies with the friendly rivalry New Yorkers have with Jersey, and creates a call to action that will drive future business. The physical placement near the uptown one train strategically targets tired workers heading home from work, who like myself might not want to spend valuable time shopping and cooking after a long day at the office. Bravo, BBH New York.

Garrett Meccariello is an aspiring brand manager based out of NYC. In his free time he can be found building the next great brand, exploring the city, and eating a lot of cured meat and cheese.

When’s The Last Time You Saw The Government Swear?

When’s The Last Time You Saw The Government Swear?

When charged with ensuring millennials listen to the PSA’s plastered on the ceilings of subway cars, what is the easiest way to catch their attention? Swear.

“Outrageous”, “Disgusting”, “Immoral”. These are all words used by a Facebook user to describe a hoax subway overhead ad supposedly by the MTA. My description of the pretend campaign? Pure Genius.

With outrage and controversy growing over the latest photoshop stunt featured below, it is important to step back from the vernacular used and understand the context and meaning of the message.

“Don’t Be A Fuck Boy”

The term fuck boy, recently coined by millennials, is defined in the Urban Dictionary as “the type of guy who does shit that generally pisses the population of the earth off all the time”. In short, this is a person with loose moral character and having little regard for the respect and space of others.

Think back to your last subway ride. Did you encounter someone who was a “pole hog” or “man-spreading”? Chances are you did. The younger generation in New York City is known for disrespecting the space of others on subway cars and furthermore, known for not giving up a seat for the elderly or those who require it. With changing personalities comes a false sense of entitlement. Listen to any Gen X’er and you will hear praise of the good ‘ole days when gentlemen would give up their seat for a lady. There is a reason you hear these remarks more frequently in 2016. Millennials hold a sense of entitlement, arguing that they shouldn’t have to give up a seat, or move out of someone’s way because they paid for that spot, or more commonly “they have a right to be there”.


This fake ad, while vulgar, speaks to the target market of the campaign in terms they understand. By using the vernacular in the ad, the MTA (or mysterious photoshopper) is able to identify with the target market by referencing how their actions can be construed with the negative connotations that follow the moniker “fuck boy”. It is also comedic to note that the red figure in the picture has a white triangle below its neck. This is meant to visually show the shirt is a v-neck cut, a popular shirt style of millennials who will further successfully identify with the ad’s copy.

V-Necks Are A Popular New Shirt Cut

When I think of a great ad campaign, it is one that speaks directly to the target while evoking an emotional response. This fake PSA’s message is loud and clear (to its target), “Millennials, respect the space of others”. While older generations may take offense to the language used in the copy, they should look at the benefits of using such a term to speak to those who need to heed the message the most in a way they will. After reading that ad, most millennials will become aware of their selfish actions, and yield extra space for others to hold onto the pole, or grab an open seat.

Garrett Meccariello is an aspiring brand manager based out of NYC. In his free time he can be found building the next great brand, exploring the city, and eating a lot of cured meat and cheese.