Ask anyone involved in selling services like insurance, private health cover or superannuation to young single adults and they’ll tell you how difficult it can be. But Monty Python’s four Yorkshiremen were only half right when they famously complained: “Try telling that to the young people of today and they won’t believe you!”

The problem isn’t actually that young adults won’t believe you, at least at a rational level. Rather, they simply don’t pay much attention to, or buy into, advertising about subjects in which they aren’t interested or personally “involved”. If it’s not perceived as relevant or doesn’t strike an emotional chord, then there’s plenty of other more interesting stuff on which young folk can expend their attentional resources.

Victoria’s ambulance services are currently running a new campaign for ambulance subscriptions that’s clearly targeted at young singles. It cleverly seeks to make tangible the idea that “somewhere there’s an accident with your name on it”, using digital techniques to show “accidents” – with “young” names like Matthew, Josh, Olivia and Emily – lurking on steep staircases and wobbly kitchen stools, waiting to trip up ill-fated victims or run them down in the form of speeding cyclists on dark streets.

Advertising that is clearly designed to get a fear response is often the subject of concern and criticism. Is it manipulative? Are the risks exaggerated? Do the “victims” in the ad accurately represent those who are really at risk? By pushing lots of emotional buttons, do they swamp our ability to make rational judgments and responses?

However, advertising practitioners would argue – with some solid and growing academic support – that there are situations when fear and other strong emotions are the only tactics that will get certain target audiences to pay attention.

There’s a well-worn cliché that young people are risk takers and think they’re indestructible. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that young people lack the basis on which to accurately perceive and quantify risks. Even when they see risks, they discount them. For example, news of the sudden and premature death of “Crazy John” Ilhan this week will have many men in their late 30s and 40s unconsciously rubbing their chests and wondering. But to a 20-year-old, 42 is more than a lifetime away, so why even think about giving up smoking now?

What seem basic human needs to older adults and especially parents – things like security and protecting those close to us – just don’t have much emotional resonance at a time of life when your top priorities are tasting all that life has to offer and working out where you fit in the world.

The Metropolitan Ambulance Service says that each year 480,000 Victorians need a trip in an ambulance, and a single trip can cost thousands of dollars. But to someone in his or her twenties, buying an ambulance subscription probably looks as relevant as buying incontinence products now because you may need them when you’re 80.

Faced with inherent disinterest and lack of engagement, advertising creatives – either intuitively, or with the help of planning tools like the “grid” developed by Australian academic Professor John Rossiter and colleagues – turn to creative strategies appropriate to the task. And the most powerful advertising approaches when the topic is “low involvement” for the target audience and the motivation is negatively originated (problem avoidance) are those that begin with negative emotions like fear, anxiety, suspense and end with a solution.

In other words, to get young singles interested in buying ambulance subscriptions – a sensible, prudent and socially responsible but intrinsically boring purchase – you need to turn on the lights and sirens, flash the headlights, mount the footpath and aim the ambulance straight at ‘em.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey