Differin ad

The strange role of disgust in health advertising

Traditionally, adverts have used disgust to disturb consumers and in turn warn them about health dangers, but it turns out there is a thin line between aversion and attraction

When tasked with conceptualising Covid-19, the Scottish Government’s campaign ‘Don’t pass coronavirus to the people you love’ used thick, green, viscous goo. The advert follows a young woman making tea for her granddad, before cutting to gunk: splattered over walls, oozing from under her fingernails and dripping from the tea mugs. In the final parting shot, both generations take a sip. And lo and behold – it’s a zombie apocalypse. The campaign is memorable – not just because it relies on classic horror tropes, but because it plays into our fear of disgust.

Over millennia, our ability to feel disgusted is an extension of our immune system. It prevents us from coming into contact with harmful pathogens — like unidentifiable goo. But revulsion isn’t necessarily tied to an in-person event. As William Ian Miller wrote: “Part of disgust is the very awareness of being disgusted.”

Marketing has long played with disgust’s ability to trigger a visceral reaction, especially when it comes to selling a product or curbing behaviours. But the line between aversion and attraction is deceptive.