Marketers have generally shied away from placing their products in the same movies as deranged axe-murderers. The logic of that seems sound. Previous advertising research has indicated that negative emotions can adversely impact the evaluations of brands, and watching dismemberment tends to put people in a weird mood.
Though certainly negative, fear is a unique emotion, and it's been deemed effective in improving the saliency of certain messages—think drunk driving ads. It's relationship to brands, though, has been understudied.
A forthcoming paper in the Journal of Consumer Researchby researchers at the University of British Columbia has now vetted fear's effect on emotional attachment to products, and the results support a surprisingly positive connection. The researchers hypothesized that fear could work for brands in the same way it works for interpersonal relationships. "We propose that during a fearful experience, consumers’ desire for affiliation might lead them to reach out to an available brand as a way to cope," the authors write. "Given that fear results in interpersonal attachment, and given that consumers relate to brands in interpersonal ways, fear may cause consumers to form attachment with brands."
"Our study shows advertisers should consider offering up their brands as something to cling to in the dark when the knives come out and the blood starts to splatter."
In a series of experiments, hundreds of subjects were individually assigned to watch video clips with varying emotional components as part of a fake "movie experience study." Excitement (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), sadness (I Am Sam), happiness (Friends), and fear (The Ring and Salem's Lot) conditions were all screened in the presence of an unfamiliar brand product, like sparkling water or juice, which the participants were told they'd be evaluating in a separate "brand evaluation study." After watching, participants were asked to evaluate their emotional attachment to, and shared emotional experience with, the product sitting in front of them.
The participants watching clips of The Ring and Salem's Lot, a television series adapted from a Stephen King novel, felt way more "emotionally attached to the brand" than those watching any of the other clips. They also "felt that they had shared the experience with the brand to a greater extent." "Only when consumers experienced fear did they have a higher perception that the brand shared the experience with them," the researchers wrote.
In a second test, they primed people with feelings of social connectedness and ran the same test. The researchers discovered that social priming eliminated the "need to affiliate with the target brand and thus there was no positive impact on emotional brand attachment." This suggested that brands, to some degree, can actually serve as psychological replacements for interpersonal relationships.
In a separate experiment, the study found that the product didn't need to be consumed; its presence was enough for the effect to work. This has obvious implications for real product placement, in which there is no tactile interaction.
“Marketers are afraid of fear,” Lea Dunn said in a statement. “But our study shows advertisers should consider offering up their brands as something to cling to in the dark when the knives come out and the blood starts to splatter.”