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Write to Scare: Tips for Terrifying Copy

Aaron Stoker-Ring

October 17, 2014
Aaron Stoker-Ring

The other night I found myself overcome by holiday spirit and decided to enjoy a glass of cider by a roaring, pumpkin-scented fire.  Warmed by the fire and full of Halloween cheer, I started thinking about what makes a terrifying ad.

A terrifying ad should hit with the surprise of Michael Myers’ knife.  It should live in your subconscious like Freddy Krueger.  Like Slenderman, it should compel you to act.

A truly effective ad must terrify both the audience’s emotional and rational mind.  While there are no hard, set rules to do this, I find that a couple of simple factors separate a really frightening ad from one that fails to horrify.

First, if you really want to scare your audience, your ad should focus on a single idea.  Effective ads rarely do double duty.  The client might want me to scare the consumer with both spiders and vampires, and I might be able to do that.  But to truly scare the bejeezus out of consumers and make them run, screaming from the product, an ad focusing on spiders or vampires will be more impactful most of the time.  If a tarantula is crawling up my arm, a vampire might only divert my attention and lessen my fear.  More is not always scarier.

Second, the most terrifying ads meet the audience halfway and let them come to a conclusion.  Don’t just bludgeon the victim.  Let them think there’s something under the bed—then, when they look, jump out of the closet. It’s easy to forget that you are talking to real people with psyches just as damaged as your own.  The true payoff of an ad is the audience’s reaction—the scream, the jump, the nightmare that leads to a conversion.

Of course, there are always exceptions.  Some people are only scared of geckos or celebrities or beautiful models; but a single, smart, petrifying idea is usually at the heart of a truly terrifying ad.