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.

3 Emerging Trends Disrupting the Advertising Agency Model in 2017

3 Emerging Trends Disrupting the Advertising Agency Model in 2017

Six. That’s the number of agencies that have asked me a variation on the question: “How
will the traditional advertising model change in the coming months?” during the employment application process.


The answer to that question is: yes, it will, and in unexpected ways. The agency model will change because we live in the information era in which trends are born on news feeds and timelines. Social movements can sweep very rapidly from coast to coast with a single post. While there has been little change in the traditional agency model (shout-out to Grey Adventures for shaking up the model), consumers have broken through traditional social norms. These changing norms demand faster responses to their trends from brands and their marketing teams.

  • Legal Marijuana: Likely to be a big contender in 2017 with 4 states recently moving to legalize recreational use of the drug. So how are agencies going to adapt to this growing market opportunity? Will the traditional “big boy” agencies seek out marijuana dispensaries as clients side by side with their financial or pharmaceutical greats? Or will neighborhoods see an influx in new shops opening up that specialize in building (or planting) emerging marijuana brands without fear of the stigma that surrounds the industry? I foresee great market opportunities for creatives and strategists to break away from the more traditional, larger agencies and open their own specialty shops to capture the business of this soon to be 8 Billion Dollar per year industry.
  • Millennials: Yes, that’s right: the dreaded bunch (myself included). During a recent conversation with a senior marketing manager, our discussion turned from the familiar industry dialogue toward a more inquisitive one. The tone suggested that many marketers are unsure of what’s next with this generation. Millennials may not follow the same demographic and psychographic trends as we have seen with past generations, but they are fluid. They are exceedingly loyal and preferencial when it comes to brands, which further drives their demand for unique and individual experiences. I frequent brands that make me feel like I am an individual, unique from my peers, and not just a number on revenue reports. Ultimately, this means that agencies must tailor communications strategies to individuals, rather than setting demographics at a high, unfiltered level. Successful agencies will need to leverage CRM marketing initiatives and tailor copy to speak to the individual preferences within the consumer, not the wallet in their back pocket.
  • Disappearing Gender Norms: It’s timely that brands have finally made strides toward removing traditional gender norms from their products and marketing. Most notably, Cover Girl recently debuted its first ever Cover Boy. No longer is the company sticking to traditional social norms and avoiding cultural taboos. This company is making a statement that brands will begin to allow consumers to define the target demographics for their products. The trend of disappearing gender norms has spread to other personal care brands as well. Premium beauty care brands, such as the Art of Shaving & Kiehl’s, have led the charge targeting their marketing and products towards men as social stigmas regarding self-care have been destroyed. The emerging market of men’s beauty care and maintenance products will continue to drive entrepreneurial investment into new companies and extend existing traditional feminine product lines of dominant companies to men. The creative work published by agencies must match evolving consumer expectations rather than pushing traditional social norms onto the market. Consumers reported appreciating “real advertising” from brands, such as Bodyform, that don’t shy away from incorporating an unfiltered life into their creative work. This trend is likely to extend into male beauty care as disappearing gender norms convey to male consumers that it is ok to take the time and use products to enhance appearance.

These three trends are just a few of those posing an upset to the traditional agency model. With social trends and demographics changing at the blink of an eye, agencies must look within and ask themselves if they are fluid enough to adapt to these changes before other competing agencies swap out the traditional model (known for the lag time between creative ideation and execution). To all potential employers out there asking questions of their applicants, weigh the insights provided by Millennials and commit to adapting to new trends and changing the way your agency operates to stay relevant and competitive in this ever crowded marketplace that we will soon call 2017.

I would like to wish a Happy New Year to all of my readers, colleagues, family and friends. May we all adapt to changing times and charge into 2017 with innovative and open minds.

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.

Trader Joe’s Isn’t Always The Healthiest

Trader Joe’s Isn’t Always The Healthiest

The clock strikes five. I’ve just finished a day’s worth of class lectures interspersed with some brand consulting work, and I’m starving. I open my freezer and reach for the first thing I see: Trader Joe’s Frozen Gnocchi al Gorgonzola, a quick ready-made meal purchased from my local store. When I bought the 16 oz. package, it was just one item in a basket filled with organic vegetables, antibiotic free chicken, and gluten free rice crisps intended to take the load off of preparing a meal on the busiest day of the week.


I would describe the dish as being rich, filling and delicious, but not healthy. Dang nabbit, I fell for it again: their clever brand centric marketing. This time, however, I wasn’t the only one who fell for the delusion that all of the products inside the hip urban grocery store were good for my diet.

Trader Joe’s, a privately held grocery chain with over 455 domestic locations, prides itself on high quality and private label offerings. The fact that the company controls nearly all of its entire horizontal and vertical supply chain ensures delivery of quality ingredients to consumers at a significant price discount compared with Whole Foods, a direct competitor.

Trader Joe’s private label food brands

In a recent qualitative study by iModerate Research Technologies (see the full study here), consumers listed Trader Joe’s top benefit as having “healthy”, “organic” offerings. Batter me up and deep-fry me! Did consumers (like me) perceive that a majority of the product offerings were healthy, when in reality they weren’t? Why yes. Yes we did.
New iModerate Study Reveals Differing Perceptions of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods (Courtesy of iModerate)

Trader Joe’s pioneered the specialty food store space by offering high quality ingredients not available at typical grocery stores. The frozen meal options are attractive to millennials shopping on a budget for ready-made meals holding the belief that the pre-made food won’t completely ruin their diets. The product offering meets this demand, except for one little problem: the macro ingredients used in some of their frozen meals aren’t healthier just because they come from Trader Joe’s when compared to their name brand competitors.

Alongside the freezer chests full of fresh-frozen vegetables and unseasoned brown rice sit diet landmines such as corn dogs, fried macaroni and cheese bites, and General Tso’s chicken. These products share the same packaging style and design as their healthy counterparts, but they are no healthier than the traditional offerings in the freezer aisle of any other local grocery store.

Trader Joe’s Fried Mac and Cheese Bites

During my first few trips, I’ll admit that I was convinced that a bag of cheesy pasta had to be healthier from Trader Joe’s than from Stop & Shop. In reality, I was confusing the benefits of certain product lines, such as their Trader Joe’s brand frozen vegetables without additives or preservatives, with the entire store’s offering. The lack of doors in the freezer and refrigerated section replicates the allure of a farm stand in which the consumer reaches directly into the bin and selects a specific product. I encourage all of my readers to shop at a Trader Joe’s’ sometime in the near future. You will be amazed at how simple packaging and marketing initiatives can create the impression of a healthy product when in reality the ingredients are the same if not worse for your health.

Trader Joe’s Frozen Display Cases

So buyers take heed. When shopping at any supermarket, be aware of a product’s ingredients and nutritional information. Marketers are involved from product conception right up until the moment of purchase (and even post-purchase, too!) Marketers cleverly influence buying decisions and perception. If it seems to be true that fried macaroni and cheese bites are “healthy”, it probably is too good to be true.

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.

Your Toddler Is A Walking, Talking Advertisement

Your Toddler Is A Walking, Talking Advertisement

This past weekend I was very fortunate to spend time with my entire family at the Connecticut shore. I was surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins, & grandparents. Everyone under the sun in my family was there… including the youngest members, the toddlers.

My first foray into entertaining young children turned out to be a fantastic time in the sand for them, and an even better continuing education advertising moment for me!
We’ve heard the rumors that supermarkets place sugary products marketed towards children at their eye level. Let me tell you a little advertising secret: those rumors are true. Little did I know that young children’s exposure to brands is not limited solely to supermarket aisles. One of my relatives asked my youngest cousin to sit still while she applied sunscreen to her back. Without missing a beat, the first words out of the toddler’s mouth were “if it’s not Banana Boat, I don’t want it”.
Whoa. Hold on for one second. Was that a brand name and a small moment of brand loyalty that just came out of a toddlers mouth? Why yes. Yes, it was.
I thought loyalty just applied to fast food chains, sugary products, and flashy toys. There is actually a deeper tactic that marketers use to sell products to toddlers.
Think about it. A three year old can’t walk into a McDonald’s to pay for a own meal without parental assistance. Why is it that children recognize the golden arches before understanding their own name? The answer starts with segmenting target audiences and target markets.
The target market is a demographic tool that explains who is purchasing the product. The target audience is the segmented group to which the advertisements are geared. This practice is often called influencer marketing in which one person influences the purchasing decision of another person. The influencer can be friends, celebrities, or even children! Advertisements encourage children to ask their parents to purchase products by name on their behalf.
Target Market vs. Target Audience
Advertisers and marketers work hard to define their target audience and understand what makes them tick. This strategy is used when  developing a creative campaign that often targets our children without adults even noticing. That is until they roll and scream on the floor for candy (see here for a laugh)!
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.

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.