This Is Scary: Product Placement Works Best When We're Terrified and Alone

Photograph by Julien Magre/Gallery Stock

It’s well known that people transfer feelings about what they watch to the brands associated with them, which is why companies spend countless millions on product placement. Products placed in funny movies should help consumers think of those brands as funny too. This is why marketers have generally stayed away from scary movies—they didn’t want their consumers to associate them with fear.

That could be the wrong move. When you watch a scary movie—especially by yourself—you are actually more likely to remember products around you and to think of them favorably, according to a recent study from the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

Lea Dunn, a Ph.D. student at Sauder, ran a series of studies in which people watched movie clips designed to evoke specific emotions (fear, sadness, humor, neutral, excitement, etc). Afterwards, the subjects were surveyed about their emotional response to the branded products near them during the viewing. The results showed that when people felt fear, they experienced an increased emotional attachment to the brands that had been with them. The emotional attachment increased when the subjects felt alone.

That’s because fear works differently from other emotions. The relationship between a brand and a person actually improves during a scary experience. When people feel scared, they look for affiliation and attachment, and brands are there to pick up the slack for loners. It’s the same emotional satisfaction that’s derived from a teddy bear or a blankie—except now it’s potato chips. Dunn’s research suggests people actually felt that the brand experienced their fear with them. The products didn’t have to be in the movie itself—they could have simply been nearby.

The need for people to affiliate during fear is so strong that it doesn’t matter what the other side of the affiliation is: an actual person, a bottle of water, a bag of chips, or a corporate logo. It also doesn’t matter if viewers can touch the products or not—simply being in proximity with the viewer makes brand attachment possible. People don’t need much time to form the connection, either. Dunn says about 10 seconds of visual attachment is enough to feel the shared experience.

Most importantly, when other humans are around, the brands lose their ability to comfort. Going to the movies with friends can still apply as being “alone” in this context, as you’re unlikely to talk with your neighbors during the film. This research opens up new possibilities for marketers to be creative on new opportunities—perhaps Snickers should give free samples out to moviegoers at a scary movie.