Fear Factor Branding: The Best Ad Placement Ever


One of the interesting tricks our brains play on us is to transfer physiological and emotional states that we are experiencing to something else going on at the same time. In Sway, authors Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman describe one of the more unusual experiments in behavior I’ve seen. In fact, it sounds like the perfect research boondoggle, as it required traveling to a remote location of incredible natural beauty. Oh, and did I mention that an attractive female research assistant was part of the experiment?

Even if this road trip started off as a lark, the results it produced were quite interesting. Here’s the quick setup: the researchers traveled to Capilano Canyon in Vancouver, a scenic gorge that (at the time of the experiments) was conveniently traversed by two bridges: a sturdy and safe wooden one, and a scary, swaying rope bridge built in the 1800s and offering the possibility of falling up to 230 feet along its 450 foot length.

The researchers had a female assistant conduct a brief interview with random male hikers as they completed the crossing of each bridge. The ostensible reason was that researchers were studying the effect of scenic beauty on creative expression. After talking to each unwitting subject, the assistant offered to provide more information on the experiment, wrote her phone number down, and gave it to the subject. The same procedure was repeated with a male research assistant who also approached male hikers.

The male assistant received virtually no phone calls in the ensuing days. The female assistant, meanwhile, had her phone ring off the hook. Perhaps that’s no great surprise, but the interesting thing was the mix of calls that the female assistant received. Half of the hikers who had crossed the scary bridge called her, while only an eighth of those who used the sturdy wood bridge responded.

The conclusion of the researchers was that the swaying rope bridge had caused those crossing it to undergo physiological changes – their pulse rate increased, they perspired, adrenaline levels increased, and so on. When they were confronted by the female research assistant as they set foot on terra firma, the subjects subconsciously attributed this state of arousal to her presence. The hikers who had crossed the wood bridge had no such physiological change, and hence called with much less frequency.

Fear Factor Branding

Regular readers of Neuromarketing know I’m always trying to find the practical side of neuroscience and behavioral research, but figuring this one out was a bit tricky. Rope bridges and deep gorges are uncommon, to say the least. (Sadly, even the shaky rope Capilano Suspension Bridge has been replaced with a disgustingly safe steel cable version anchored in tons of concrete and featuring chain-link sides.) On the other hand, what ARE very common are scary amusement park rides like roller coasters. Over 300 million people visit such parks each year, and a healthy percentage of those partake in some kind of ride designed to get one’s adrenaline going. Is this an opportunity?

Here are three questions for which I don’t yet have good answers:
1) Would the adrenaline rush created by a scary ride transfer to a brand message, much like it did to the female research assistant in the bridge experiment?
2) If so, where should the ad placement be? In view of the rider while the ride is taking place? Or in sight as the rider exits the ride with wobbly knees and surging pulse?
3) Are there any negatives to combining branding and frightened customers?

Despite the fact that the effectiveness of such ads is speculative, I find the concept intriguing. What other opportunies can you think of for fear factor branding? New York taxis? IRS office sponsorships?

  1. Debra Dalgleish says

    I interpret the bridge experiment results differently. Those who used the rope bridge are more daring, thus more inclined to take the further risk of calling the girl.
    But even that result could be useful to marketers. Those willing to ride a roller coaster are probably more willing to switch brands too. So I don’t think it’s the adrenaline that you’re after, but the risk taking consumer.

  2. costi says

    what about another, more simple explanation: the hikers who crossed the scary bridge were bolder and thus, more likely to make the first step in approaching a beautiful woman. quite intuitively, I would say..

  3. Jonathan G says

    …or it could be that the “Scary Bridge” people just didn’t have as many built in fears and inhibitions and were more likely to hit on an attractive female anyway.
    The “Safe Bridge” hikers were all a bunch of wussies which is why they took the safe bridge in the first place.

    It appears that there was no control group of people who did not cross a bridge but still had the cojones to call the babe.

  4. GirlPie says

    Very interesting study you mentioned, and a good one to repeat for answers to your 3 questions, but I wonder (as a girl who could have been used in the bridge test), would the call-rate have been as high if the phone number had been pre-printed on a sheet she handed out — and then ask: if to every male and within sight of the others, or only privately? I think some of the response rate may have had to do with feeling Selected by this attractive female, perhaps for mastering the scary bridge.

    I wonder if there is a control for that notion in your own trials-to-come? Or if it even matters. But my first thought when reading it was hovered on she “wrote her phone number down” — a seemingly selective action. Very interesting.

    My suspicions:
    #1 – yes; #2 – just at the end, at the stop, before coming off, when thrill is high but reality hasn’t hit yet; #3 – I think ‘thrilled’ is more the emotion than ‘frightened’ — so ‘thrilled’ = no, ‘frightened’ = possibly.
    Thanks for always making us think.

  5. Kim says

    Was the physiological change responsible? From the description, it seems equally plausible that the hikers who took the dangerous bridge already had a more risk-seeking attitude and would have been more likely to call the female, bridge or no bridge.

  6. Ivana Taylor says

    Hi Roger – absolutely fascinating stuff. I love this blog!

    I gotta say that I don’t think that a brand message would stick better on a roller-coaster because — well — while it might be scary, it’s still controlled scariness. 🙂

    There’s something about the natural environment which still has a higher probability of danger associated with it. There’s an “old brain” association with potential danger in the wild more than on a roller coaster.

    Besides, how can you compare a cute assistant greeting you after a truly scary crossing of a potentially dangerous bridge, to a Coke ad on a roller coaster 🙂 🙂

    But you have definitely made me ask myself the question “In what ways can I re-create that experience…”

    Thanks for an excellent reading experience.

  7. Mark Lewis says

    It would be interesting to study the data of sales from an amusement parkIt would be interesting to study sales data from an amusement park. Do vendors near more ?scary? rides sell more merchandise? How about the photos sold of people on the ride are people riding the ?scary? rides more likely to purchase a photo than those riding ?tamer? rides? Someone might be able to support the argument made in the study with the hikers and bridges.

  8. Ressa says

    This is interesting but I would have a different take on it. It seems to me that the type of person who would cross a gorge via a “scary” rope bridge would be risk takers, so calling the attractive assistant would seem to be just the sort of thing a risk taker would do.

  9. Psypo says

    Capilano Canyon experiment is something different…it was not on making any phone call, but about describing a picture. It has nothing to do with marketing,or may adversely affect marketing. You may connect it with punishment-reward mechanisms.

    Fear can activate sex and that is through a different mechanism (nothing to do with adrenaline etc). I expect your opinion on my my comment. I am sorry for criticizing

    I have wrote a similar but different article on this topic last month. You may read it here


  10. Roger Dooley says

    What a great outpouring of feedback, with one major theme being that perhaps the “scary bridge users” were self-selected to be more daring, and hence more likely to call the female researcher.

    This same idea occurred to the original researchers, who ran a second test using ONLY those who crossed the shaky bridge. This time, they approached some subjects immediately after crossing the bridge, while others were approached after a 10 minute delay. As with the first experiment, the group that was approached immediately after getting off the bridge called in much higher numbers than the delay group.

    Thanks for the comments, all – sorry I didn’t include the second experiment in my initial post, but the post was already getting longish and I hate to test the patience of my readers!


  11. Xander Becket says

    Hey Roger:

    Great post, as always. This is the only one of the dozens of feeds in my reader that I read religiously.

    I had an experience when I was about 9 that I remember to this day: I was absolutely terrified to get on a roller coaster, did it anyway, and when I got off a woman looked at me, smiled and gave me the thumbs-up.

    Up until reading this post I’ve thought that woman embodied my guardian angel.

    A seemingly random act from a complete stranger at the right time made the deepest, lasting impression on me.

    I think amusement parks have figured this out. No park sells personalized pictures and merch on the way out of the ferris wheel.

  12. Brian says

    I actually think an ad right at the apex of a roller coaster fall could be a great placement. Emotional moments stick out the most in our minds, so imagine being thrilled and full of adrenaline and then seeing an ad for coke, I think the recall rate would be mighty high. I do website design and this kind of stuff is interesting

  13. Darlene says

    I don’t think rollercoaster marketing would work for me. Whenever I go on a coaster I come off feeling slightly sick and wondering why I did that to myself…again. So it might have the opposite effect on me :). Unless it was for like Advil or Petpo that might work.
    Interesting article, but it’s a shame there wasn’t a non-bridge control group and certain things weren’t checked that would affect the call/not call decision (marriage status, sexual orientation, hottness (hehe)).
    Thanks for a great read.

  14. mary says

    Interesting that so many people on here assumed that the hikers chose which bridge they would cross. Roger’s follow-up comment has suggested that is it the case, but it’s not clear.
    My first thought was that the guys who crossed the shaky bridge were feeling pretty confident afterward and therefore either interpreted the research assistant’s friendliness as a come-on or felt powerful enough to call. I don’t think it was fear, so much as the mastery of it, that made them bolder or more flattered.

  15. Roger Dooley says

    Interesting alternate explanation, Mary. Whatever the effect was, it was short-lived, since the second experiment showed that a ten minute delay greatly reduced the call rate from the scary bridge crossers.

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