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How to Use Fear Effectively & Ethically in Direct Response Copy

Emotion drives decisions, and direct response copywriting is all about getting readers to decide to take the action you want them to take. One of the most effective emotions to utilise when it comes to direct response copywriting is fear.

Using fear in copywriting to persuade a reader to take the action you want is a delicate art. Go too far, and you risk entering off-putting clickbait territory. There’s also the question of ethics. 

So, before you make use of the powerful emotion of fear in your copywriting, there are some crucial things you need to know.

What is fear-based marketing?

Fear-based marketing hones in on an apparent “threat”, as perceived by a target audience, and uses the fear that the threat causes to drive a response. That response can be buying a product or service, subscribing to a service, enquiring about a service or product, and more, depending on what’s being sold.

There are three broad categories of fear that this kind of marketing focuses on:

  • Creating a sense of exclusivity
  • Making the consumer feel like they will miss out
  • Making the consumer fear a future threat

Fear is particularly effective when used to sell safety and security products, as well as in government schemes like anti-smoking advertisements or HMRC crack-downs:

What’s the science behind fear-based marketing?

Fear is an essential part of the human brain, protecting us from perceived threats by making us take action. 

Research from the University of Chicago has shown that fear is a better motivator than emotions like hope.

Take, for example, someone who is about to do something dangerous, like walk into the path of an oncoming vehicle. You shout to warn them, causing them to feel fear and prompting them to take action to help themselves. 

Fear prompts action.

As Kirsten A. Passyn and Mita Sujan explain in their research from the Journal of Consumer Research, “Making people feel good is less important than making people feel accountable when it comes to making wise decisions about self-protection.”

The FOMO factor

The concept of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is one you’re likely very familiar with. You don’t want to go to a social event, but you don’t want to miss out on a great experience that other people are sharing and you aren’t. So you go anyway.

Psychological research on the concept of FOMO defines it as including two processes: “Firstly, the perception of missing out, followed up with a compulsive behaviour to maintain these social connections.”

So, it makes sense that copywriting that works to create a perception of missing out will encourage action to remedy that. 

Common examples include language like:

  • “While stocks last”
  • “Last chance to buy!”
  • “Reserve your tickets now”
  • “Members only”
  • “Only available for registered users”
  • “Unlock now”
  • “Special offer for subscribers”

Is using fear in marketing ethical?

Using persuasion techniques is different to using manipulation techniques. Using fear in copywriting can be considered ethical if your product or service provides an actual solution to the problem which is causing the fear.

If your product or service can genuinely alleviate a pain point, and is actually in the customer’s best interest, then taking advantage of fear to persuade action is justifiable. For example, fear was used for good in this way in COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, using fear of the illness to encourage action to protect against it.

How to use fear ethically and effectively in copywriting to prompt action

So, you know that fear is an effective strategy for direct response marketing. But how do you actually use it in your copywriting?

An oft-cited study by Kim Witte identifies the key criteria for successful messaging using fear:

  • Specify a threat that is moderate to high, not mild
  • Ensure the reader feels they are personally at risk
  • Ensure the reader believes that preventative action is simple and doable

With this in mind, here are the simple steps you need to take to effectively utilise fear in your copywriting:

1). Know your audience

You have to know exactly what your target audience is and what makes them tick. You must know the fear that motivates them, or you won’t get through to them.

Knowing your audience means you pick the right threat, whether that’s FOMO or fear of a future threat, and hone in on it.

2). Identify the threat they face and demonstrate that you understand

Don’t be vague: specificity is key. Explain, loud and clear, that you know what the threat the target audience fears is. You get it.

Using particular examples and illustrations that are easily recognisable will build the reader’s trust in you. It feels personal. It will make them feel understood and, therefore, more engaged in your message.

3). Make the threat easily conquerable with your product or service

You’ve identified the threat and you’ve made it personal to the reader. Now, you make the threat easily beatable with your help.

The value of your product or service must be obvious and it must be in opposition to whatever has caused the threat you identified in the first place.

Let’s use an example for, I don’t know, the sterling SEO services provided by the incredible digital marketing agency, Bamboo Nine. Whoever they are.

Direct response copy that uses fear might look something like this:

You have a website. You have a product that you’re trying to sell with your website. And it’s a great product. But you just can’t seem to get your website seen on Google. Your content strategy doesn’t seem to be working. And, to be honest, you don’t really understand how to use Search Engine Optimisation techniques to remedy this. You’re actually missing out on sales because of the poor performance of your website. And you don’t know what to do. Well, Bamboo Nine is a digital marketing agency with a dedicated team of SEO specialists that know exactly what to do. We have helped countless clients to streamline their SEO strategy and get their websites on the digital map. And they’ve seen their leads skyrocket because of it. Don’t miss out on sales because of a poor SEO strategy that can be remedied with the right know-how. Get the specialists at Bamboo Nine to take care of everything for you with comprehensive SEO expertise that’s tailored to your needs. Let’s talk.

This copy caters to SMEs with no marketing department, who don’t have a whole lot of knowledge of SEO. It identifies their fear, that they’re missing out on crucial sales because of their lack of SEO knowledge, with specific, personable sentences. And then it provides a solution to that fear that’s easily actionable. Trust in this solution is cultivated by the inclusion of case studies.


Existing examples of fear-based advertisements

Here are some examples of ads that have successfully drawn on fear in their copy to garner a response.
All images are sourced from Marketing Examples.


This billboard successfully uses fear, immediately identifying a threat and making it personal with the use of “YOU”. It then provides a solution to the threat, all within three, punchy sentences.

Bell Helmets

In this classic ad from Bell Helmets, the copy suggest a potential future threat. The personal pronouns make it more powerful and give a sense of urgency.

Accounting Ad

The copy from this accounting services company uses a statistic to make the threat ultra-specific and tangible. It then asks a question which prompts action. What are you going to do about it? You’re going to read on and find out how this company can help you.


SmartLoop cleverly creates FOMO here by implying that everyone who doesn’t use their services is not smart. It makes the reader want to take action to be included in the list of intelligent creators.

Hair Loss Ad

The fear in this ad comes from the sense of urgency created by the copy. It implies that if you don’t use the solution this company provides, it might be too late for you.

In all of these examples, the key facets of using fear are adhered to:

  • They are all specific: they hone in on one, clear threat
  • They are all personal: they centre the reader, making the threat seem real and relatable to them

They provide an actionable solution to the identified threat that centres their product or service

Copywriting Scare Tactics: Final Thoughts

Using the fear factor in your copy has proven results if you stick to the steps above. The important thing to remember is that you’re never exploitative, and actually have a genuine solution to a problem.

Go forth and instil fear (ethically!) in the minds of your target audience.

Worried you’re missing out on other crucial content tips?

Employ the expert services of Bamboo Nine and you won’t have to. 

We offer the whole SEO package and can create a totally personalised content plan for your business or organisation. Our 30-day rolling contracts and completely transparent business model mean you’re always in the driver’s seat of your marketing campaign.

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