Advertising appeals…is there a correct dosage of sex, humor & fear?

Advertising appeals such as sex, humor and fear can have numerous effects on audiences – some bad, some good.  As the old adage argues, “Sex sells.” With modern advertising containing countless sexual appeals, it can be presumed sex does sell.  Humor, just like sex, can have positive effects on audience attitude and may lead to sales in the long run.  However, advertisers must be cautious when using sex and humor as it may have an adverse effect on the audience.  Humor can create a relationship with consumers, which can enhance their thoughts and feelings toward a brand or product.  When using humor, however, it must be done in a balanced manner – not too much, but not too little.  If a high/extreme humor appeal is used, it may alienate the audience from the message and they may not remember/recall the brand or product advertised. Advertising that creatively incorporates a product or service in moderate humor appeals will be more effective as it relates the message to something entertaining that an audience may later recall. Moderate humor will allow a relationship between the audience and advertiser, while increasing the likelihood of the viewer to decode the message more effectively.

Fear appeals can be somewhat different from sex and humor appeals and must be used cautiously so as to not create too much arousal or anxiety.  A moderate level of fear can motivate an audience to seek ways to alleviate the fears that may be caused by the message.  For example, if a girl watches a commercial about HPV and is afraid that she may get HPV if she doesn’t receive the Gardasil vaccine then she may seek more information about vaccine to assuage her fears. If excessive fear appeal is used, however, it may cause too much arousal or anxiety and the audience will employ defense mechanisms such as ignoring the message altogether. Advertisers and marketers must be wary of the amount of fear they inscribe in their marketing communications because they may alienate their audience entirely.

In terms of effectiveness, gender differences exist – as they most always do – in the manner an audience will respond to an advertisement.  Men may interpret humor that uses more competitive or vulgar appeals better rather than humor that contains less.  While women, on the other hand, are less likely to enjoy raunchy humor.  If an ad makes a jab at another’s expense, women are more inclined to feel emotions and interpret the ad as distasteful. The same goes for sexual appeals used in advertisements.  Vulgar and excessive sex appeals may be repulsive to women, while men tend to welcome escalated sexual appeals.  Biologically, men and women are wired differently in relation to arousal and anxiety.  Therefore, when faced with messages incorporating fear women tend to have a lower tolerance and higher avoidance than men.  Men tend to have higher coping ability with fear-based messages.

Largely, advertising appeals are tricky.  To be used effectively, many aspects of appeals must be considered carefully.  There is not a one-size fits all approach, so advertisers must adjust accordingly to each specific audience involved.


What are advertising effects?

The three dimensions of communication effects are: cognitive, affective/attitudinal, and behavioral.  Collectively, the three dimensions emphasize the interrelationship between knowing, feeling, and doing among consumers. The first dimension – cognitive – refers to the beliefs or knowledge a consumer holds about a product or brand. Specific effects of this dimension include awareness, attention and knowledge of the particular product/brand. The second dimension – affective – refers to the way a consumer feels about a product or brand; it represents emotions or opinions. Specific effects of this dimension include liking and preference. The third dimension – behavioral – involves the intentions or actual behavior a consumer has in regard to the product or brand.  The specific effect of this dimension includes purchase.

Most advertisers will say that the most important dimension of communication effects is the cognitive dimension because it includes the awareness and knowledge of a product or brand. One of advertising’s purposes is that it introduces products/brands to consumers so that they have awareness and knowledge of them.  Without awareness or knowledge the consumer does not know that the product/brand exists and therefore cannot make a decision in regard to the product/brand. It can be assumed that if the consumer is not aware of or does not have knowledge of the product/brand than they cannot experience the other two dimensions – affective and behavioral. Ultimately the cognitive dimension is the start of the AIDA model, without the cognitive dimension a consumer cannot make an action in regard to a product/brand.

Unaided awareness, top-of-mind awareness, aided awareness and familiarity are all types of advertising awareness. First, unaided awareness is achieved when a consumer identifies a brand/product without being prompted. Top-of-mind awareness is a subset of unaided awareness; it is achieved when a consumer identifies a brand/product before any other one. Aided awareness is achieved when a consumer can identify that they are aware of a brand/product when they are prompted. Familiarity is a subset of aided awareness.  It is achieved when a consumer not only knows or has heard about a brand, but also knows about the brand and it’s personality.  Top-of-mind awareness is particularly coveted by brands because it is the brand that first comes to a consumer’s mind. According to Kelley and Jugenheimer (2010) research has shown that a brand’s market share can be highly correlated with unaided awareness; market share leaders are often the brands that lead the category in awareness.   Therefore, top-of-mind awareness is the most important advertising effect.

Advertising’s immediate objective should never be strictly sales. Although sales are an important long-term goal, advertising should not be thought of as a means-to-an-end where sales is the only objective and once achieved there is no reason to continue. Even though a consumer purchases a product once, it does not go to say that the consumer will be a repeat purchase or that they will become an advocate for a brand.  Sales are important. However, if consumers do not continue to buy a product/brand more than once than it was a one-time affect that did not increase brand equity in the consumer’s mind. Also, it is hard to isolate advertising sales completely from other factors that could have contributed to sales. Therefore, it will be difficult to measure the effect advertising had on purchase behavior. For these reasons, advertising’s immediate objective should not be sales.  Advertising should focus on the cognitive and affective dimensions of effects rather than behavioral because the cognitive and affective dimensions will drive the behavioral dimension in the end.


Kelley, L. D., & Jugenheimer, D. W. (2010). Advertising account planning: Planning and managing an IMC campaign (2nd ed.).  Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Integrated Marketing Communications – Is it for everyone?

Integrated Marketing Communication is a marketing model that encompasses building consumer relationships with clear, consistent and impactful messages that are data-driven and consumer focused. The concept of IMC is to produce synergy among marketing efforts to influence and affect behavior in specific target audiences. There are five key features of IMC that effectively build an impactful marketing strategy.  First, all IMC efforts should be consumer focused.  Thus, marketers must acknowledge that consumers are in control and they must understand their attitudes, perceptions and behaviors. Since consumers are becoming increasingly fragmented, IMC is driven by consumer data and analysis. Secondly, all forms of potential contact must be used. Brands must be present where the consumer is; these touch points are always important, even if they are all not equally as engaging. Thirdly, all messages must be consistent and have a clear voice. This is where synergy comes into play. Uncoordinated messages will send an ambiguous message to consumers; coordinated and consistent messages will produce synergy. IMC seeks to build relationships with consumers. This fourth key feature is important because without it one may lose consumers. If you build strong relationships with consumers, the relationships will most likely last and be mutually beneficial. Last but not least, the fifth key feature of IMC is to influence and affect consumer behavior. Affecting behavior is the ultimate goal for any marketing communication strategy; if a desired behavior is not achieved, the strategy was then a failure.  Together, all five of these features produce maximum impact and synergy.

As an advertiser, it is important to embrace IMC because all communication efforts must be clear, consistent and impactful. If advertising efforts are inconsistent and unclear, messages will not be impactful. It is also important for advertisers to be individually consumer-focused rather than mass media focused so that they can segment audiences appropriately for greater engagement. It can be difficult to implement IMC without necessary diverse skills sets. It can cost additional money and human resources to effectively embrace and implement IMC; therefore, the agency must have approach IMC with an open mind.

Advertising agencies may encounter many problems that would impede their efforts of becoming a full IMC agency. First, as mentioned above, an agency may not have money resources to embrace IMC fully. Employees may not possess the skill-set or knowledge to effectively manage and implement IMC efforts. Consequently, agencies would need to resort to hiring more employees to execute IMC. An advertising agency most often will only execute a specific area of marketing communication efforts – advertising. With that said, it would be hard to implement IMC if an agency is only overseeing advertising efforts. Public relations, marketing and advertising specialists would need to be housed at the same agency to effectively coordinate all IMC efforts.

Though IMC may not be for everyone, it can certainly be said that implementing an integrated marketing communications approach to organization/company communication efforts will have a positive long-term effect – for the company and the audience.

Looking for schools that teach IMC at the master’s level? 

Consider the following:

IMC Online @ West Virginia University:

Northwestern University – Medill:

Loyola University: