Research - books on designs with scare tactics

Good day All,

I’m currently writing a dissertation surrounding social awareness campaigns (for example anti-smoking posters that are designed to shock/scare the viewer) and the thinking behind these designs.

I have found there is very little reading matter on this topic, and very few prominent designers put their names to such campaigns/designs.

If anyone has any source suggestions (books, essays, blogs etc.) surrounding this topic I would be SO grateful.

I got about 10 pages of google returns by typing in
Advertising through fear
(no quotes on that, you want to keep the search open)

Great thank you!

This has definitely opened lots of new avenues. I’m still struggling to find a comprehensive book on the subject.

Thanks again

If you are intending original thinking on the subject, it might be more beneficial, rather than simply going straight to what others have written on the subject relating to design and advertising, to be – initially, at least – reading deeper, ie, researching the psychology and physiology of fear; where and how it’s use could be positive or detrimental, ie, societal benefit versus potential risk to vulnerable people by employing such tactics.

Fundamentally, however, you need to determine and posit a premise for your thesis. What are you attempting to prove or refute with your research and then in turn create a logical case for?

It may be that you have already done this and just didn’t state it in your original post. I think it could make the basis for a really solid thesis, but it will be much easier if you determine what it is, specifically, you want to prove / refute with your research. That way you’ll have a specific area to read around and towards.

I think what I am saying is don’t look ONLY at existing writing on the specific subject, as related to advertising. As a student of design, you should be already familiar with the idea of marrying disparate thoughts together to find a new solution. The possibilities are endless with a bit of lateral thinking.

How beneficial are scare tactics to commercial advertising as opposed to public health, say? The use of scare tactics in political advertising. You could go on forever…

If I were doing it, I’d be looking at both the benefit vs damage aspects (societal and personal), along with ethics and morality. For example, off the top of my head; if eliciting a fear response to encourage people to stop smoking is acceptable, for example, where is the moral line for where it is not? At what point does it become unethical. To my mind it is employed far too liberally in advertising as it is,

Use Germideath on your surfaces to kill 99% of all known bacteria.

Outside of the current Covid crisis, where we have to be especially mindful of our cleaning habits, has this kind of advertising caused an irrational, widespread fear of bacteria. If we eliminated all bacteria, our immune systems wouldn’t be able to build up a resistance and thus we would become more vulnerable to infection. Is this kind of fear-mongering, presented as concern for our welfare, in fact, just another cynical way to sell you more stuff? Does this cross an ethical line? If so, why is it unethical. This then comes back to the psychological and physiological effects of eliciting base, temporal-lobe, amygdala responses.

On the other hand, fewer people die from strep infections than they did 100 years ago.

Anyway, I’m rambling. But, you see, it doesn’t take much to open up an avenue of research. There are a thousand avenues (and rabbit holes!) to go down with this. It could be a really interesting one.

Good luck.

You know, those germicides that say they kill 99% of bacteria on surfaces?
Yeah, those 1% that are left are the strongest, and now they are what’s left to multiply.
Good luck with that.
Eat more dirt.

Ah yes - it’s a three log reduction, so it’s 99.9% of germs. If it was 100% of germicides it might kill humans, legally they are only allowed to say 99.9%.

But you know, not all germicides are harmful, so no need to kill them all!

When I was a kid, my Nan used to say, ‘You have to eat a peck of muck before you die’. I had no idea what she meant back then, but I sure as hell ingested my fair share of soil, had many cuts and scrapes you used to just lick clean, sprained wrists, falls out of trees, etc, etc. No one then had even heard of gluten allergies, celiac insensitivities, lactose intolerance. I think my old nan might just have been right.

I’m sure she was.

I grew up on ranch, where each day meant breathing in dried cattle, sheep and horse manure stirred up by the wind and hundreds of hooves. The air was brown with the stuff at times, but we were right there in the middle of it. I know of no one who got sick from it, though, and I’ve never known an asthmatic rancher.

Thank you!

Definitely a lot of food for thought.

The moral and even legal line of scare tactics is very interesting (as you mention). And yes I’m trying to read up on a wide variety of scare-tactic applications.

I was just surprised that there doesn’t seem to be a go-to book on the general subject (at least not one that I could easily find). I agree that creating my own original content on the subject using seemingly unconnected material (for instance looking at what humans are programmed to fear) will produce something much more original.

(Obtaining book references was in part just for a more reliable looking annotated bibliography).

And no at this point I don’t have a definitive title/premise, so I’m still very much in the research stage, which you have definitely helped with.


I don’t think you’ll find much in the way of entire books on the topic. But you might find a chapter here and there in books about the psychology of advertising.

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