Why Brands Shouldn’t Fear Horror Movies

On the surface, horror films appear to be problematic for brand promotion and product placement. The horror genre thrives on creating tension and terror by subverting comforting familiarity and stripping everyday objects and systems of the reliability that normally make us feel safe, all of which are associations that brands aspire to build with their customers.

This is exactly why seeing a branded mobile phone in a horror movie is a rarity since an audience witnessing the latest iPhone run out of battery or unable to find a signal at a crucial moment is not the most favourable demonstration of an Apple product, for example.

However, with the increasing popularity of the genre in the 2010s and studies showing that audiences actually form a stronger brand attachment when they are scared rather than happy, is it time that brands stopped hiding under the duvet when it comes to horror films and start embracing their deepest fears? Well, history does show that product promotion in a horror film can produce results of startlingly successful consequence. 

A Promotional Exorcise

As director William Friedkin was editing The Exorcist in 1973, he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the original score provided by composer Lalo Schifrin. While paying a visit to the head offices of Atlantic Records, he picked up a white label album that contained an ethereal and unearthly piano motif which is now known the world over as the theme for his horror masterpiece. The album was, of course, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, the very first recording commissioned by the then fledgeling label Virgin Records - a business venture of a certain young entrepreneur, Richard Branson.

Before the release of The Exorcist in December 1973, Tubular Bells languished far outside the Billboard Top 100 in the US. By March 1974, the album reached number 3 in the US charts after The Exorcist’s massively successful run in US cinemas. The rest, as they say, is history with Branson building a vast business empire on the back of the success of Oldfield’s progressive rock suite, which was helped immeasurably by its inclusion in what is still to this day the highest grossing horror film of all time (adjusted for inflation).

The success of Tubular Bells in conjunction with The Exorcist was despite the film’s rampant religious and censorship-baiting controversy that still lingers today and the rather fleeting use of Oldfield’s music in the film, showing that placing a product in a horror film can have an extremely long-lasting impact. Also, its legacy of the success begets success is one that is becoming increasingly difficult for brands to ignore with modern horror movies.

Rising from the Crypt

Horror movies have been traditionally viewed as box office lightweights by studios by their nature of being lean, mean, and capable of holding their own in the ring. They are rarely expected to bring in the big bucks but by being cheap to produce, the ROI on horror films has generally been high just from the modest box office returns they often bring.

To thrive with their audience, horror films do not rely on expensive star names or spectacle. Instead, horror resonates with its audience via concept and well-orchestrated scares. This is borne out by the data we received from a recent GlobalWebIndex survey carried out on movie-goers:

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While being scary is an obvious requisite for horror films, we can see above that believability and immersion in the story are the next most important factors for the audience, factors in filmmaking that rely on invention rather than heavy financial investment. Horror films’ reliance on modest production budgets should make it easier for brands to ingratiate themselves with the production as studios will be looking for as many ways as possible to subsidise costs to maximise the high ROI that horror films often depend upon.

However, horror films have shown a recent trend of punching above their weight at the box office over the last decade. After the genre’s distasteful indulgence in “torture porn” with franchises like Saw and Hostel in the 2000’s, it has gone through a renaissance in the 2010’s.

Spearheaded by the franchises of writer/director/producer James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious) and Blumhouse Studios (Paranormal Activity, The Purge), horror films have become serious contenders at the box office. Since the release of Paranormal Activity in 2009 the genre has seen a meteoric rise in box office revenues as demonstrated below by plotting the top grossing horror films year-by-year at the US box office below:

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It is worth noting that before 2009 only four horror films had ever broken the $100mil mark domestically in the US (The Exorcist, The Silence of the Lambs, The Blair Witch Project, The Ring). Whereas since 2009, six horror films have grossed over $100mil, with 2017’s It and this year’s A Quiet Place enjoying genuine blockbuster levels of success.

And it isn’t just fiscally that give horror films cause to be taken more seriously. This year’s Academy Awards saw the first horror film nominated for Best Picture since The Silence of the Lambs in 1992 in the shape of Jordon B. Peele’s acclaimed horror-satire Get Out (also a Blumhouse Studios production), for which the writer/director won Best Screenplay.

With audiences increasingly flocking towards the genre and by shedding its “cheap and nasty” stigma in the process, horror films should be becoming much less fearful for brands to associate their products with. But what kind of products should brands be seeking to place in horror films and who should they be targeting?

Comfort Eating

From the aforementioned survey of movie-goers, we have determined that the horror audience has some bias towards being female and slightly older:

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Respondents who chose Horror as their favourite film genre were more likely to be female somewhere between 35 and 54-years-old.

The same survey has also given us insight into which kind of products cinema audiences are most likely to respond to when placed in a film:

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We can see above that movie audiences are most likely to form attachments to clothing and food & drink products featured in movies. Horror films may not be the ideal setting for the promotion of a clothing line with clothes often being torn, bloodied or simply just removed in horror movies to enhance the vulnerability of the protagonists. Food products, however, should be much more intrigued by the prospect of product placement in horror movies.

Not only did “Food & Drink” score highly among the target horror audience member of the Gen-X female, it also enjoys a more positive association with the genre thanks to the “Trick or Treat” tradition of Halloween. There is also the inherently comforting nature of food & drink to take into consideration when audiences are scared out of their wits by what is happening on screen.

Indeed, a 2014 study from the University of British Columbia produced startling results in the use of fear to generate brand attachment concluding that:

“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.”

Another interesting discovery in the study was that despite a product being present when the subject was afraid, they didn’t associate that fear with the product itself as noted by the study’s co-author, Dr Lea Dunn:

“It’s important that the type of fear I used was incidental. People were afraid, but the brand wasn’t causing them to be afraid,”

And it isn’t just a familiar brand that can provide a horror viewer sanctuary while watching since Dr Lea Dunn used brands that were new to the subjects leading her to comment:

“I purposely used brands that they’d never seen before because … I wanted to show that you could facilitate attachment…

The brand was with them during the experience, and for the horror movies, they said they felt the most attached and that they felt that they had shared that experience with the brand to a greater extent, that they got through the experience together. It’s interesting because attachment can predict loyalty later,”

It seems that horror movies can provide a superior level of brand reinforcement and attachment to other genres, which food & drink products could be uniquely positioned to take advantage of according to our audience data.

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David Murphy

David Murphy

EntSight Researcher