Let Data not convention drive Strategy

Becky Chidester

CEO, Wunderman Health

Fear is an emotion that many marketers avoid. It’s true that when confronted with an ugly image, people often look away. Why? The brain is wired for pleasure, prefers good news over bad and likes to hear information that validates its preconceptions. In health, this optimism bias prevents people from facing reality. Smokers, for example, often don’t believe they are likely to contract lung cancer or other diseases, despite decades of educational messaging that depict the dangers of smoking.



Historically, educational messages have not been sufficient to change behavior. It takes a lot more than showing people the errors of their ways to trigger improvement. In our 2019 Health Inertia Study—annual research into a common behavior in which people get stuck in poor health habits, despite having an abundance of information about good health and how to achieve it—the question we set out to answer was: how can marketers create communications that will motivate and inspire healthy choices?

We chose to look at the area of smoking cessation and found that we could have a positive impact on breaking health inertia by creating content that was informed by motivations. Much to our surprise, the content that performed the best used the emotional platform of fear and loss, which is a taboo in most health communications. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, our findings demonstrate that fear can be portrayed authentically, personally and humanly to empower change.

In our research, we conducted a behavioral research analysis to identify the three deepest motivations behind the decision to quit smoking: (1) having a good life, (2) achieving family security and (3) making social connections and the three deepest emotions—(1) fear, (2) joy and (3) hope. We tested a flight of marketing content tailored to those motivations and emotions against the current anti-smoking campaign from the CDC, which uses fear and ugly outcomes to scare people into quitting. We looked both at people’s conscious reactions to the advertising and their subconscious reactions—the latter was based on an analysis of their facial responses to content. The most successful ad?

In the study, when people motivated by the desire to achieve family security were exposed to content targeted to that desire and designed to evoke fear, they were 16% more likely to say, “I am going to create a plan to quit smoking,” than they were after seeing an ad from the CDC. In the real world, this would translate to six million smokers creating a plan to quit who would not have otherwise done so.

The content connects with the viewer through what matters to them and through a creative subject that is the motivation, not necessarily the patient.

Fear with an open ending conveys hope.

The image does not portray an ugly ending, such as a child in an intensive care unit. Instead, the image allows viewers to reflect on their own motivations and how they could act on them. Further to this point, “would” is often more powerful than “will.” Conditional phrasing can empower readers and help them believe they can make a change.

Nonverbal cues are effective.

In the above ad, the child challenges the viewer with direct eye contact. The colors are dark and evoke the feeling of fear, but nonverbal cues like these can inspire viewers to overcome their fears.

Facts are important.

While emotion is a powerful tool, it stands on information. Facts, importantly, lend credibility to a message. While the CDC marketing content used fear to scare people away from its message, portraying people’s fear authentically, personally and humanly caught their attention and empowered them to begin taking steps to conquer it. This is not to say fear is the only emotion that can trigger action. Different audiences are inspired by different motivations and emotions, and different emotions might work better at different times. To break health inertia, it’s up to us as marketers to suspend preconceived notions about how to inspire audiences to action, and to use data to identify the right motivations and emotions to drive authentic and human creative.

To read more about the second annual Wunderman Health Inertia Study, visit: