Are These the 10 Most Frightening Ads Ever Made?

Unruly sorts its database of spots by fear factor

Trailers for horror movies aside, when was the last time you were frightened by a commercial? 

Fear isn't an emotion marketers normally try to evoke, but a lot of advertising goes for the creep factor around Halloween. And now, video ad tech company Unruly has sorted through the thousands of commercials in its database to determine which ones generate the most intense feelings of fear. 

The "Terrifying 10" was ranked using the Unruly EQ tool, which uses a combination of audience panels, facial coding and machine learning to measure viewers' emotional response to advertising. Horror-movie trailers were omitted from the ranking. 

Here's the top 10, in reverse order of scariness: 

10. Snickers | Grocery Lady

This spot from BBDO New York and Smuggler director Guy Shelmerdine went viral ahead of Halloween in 2010. The old lady is legitimately creepy, even if it's clearly just a couple of kids playing a prank. 

Snickers | Grocery Lady

9. Metz | The Judderman

Agency HHCL and director Enda McCallion created this oddity for the U.K. market in 2000. It's clearly based on European folklore, with its sinister, mythical "Judderman" character, who was played by a 6-foot-5 ballet dancer. The strategy was to create a character who's beguiling, mysterious and cold, like the drink, according to Campaign. It was shot in Budapest with an adapted hand-cranked Arri camera, used to replicate the variable shutter speeds seen in early cinema. 

Metz | The Judderman

8. PlayStation 3 | Baby

TBWA\Chiat\Day created this spot as part of the launch campaign for the PlayStation 3 in 2006. The idea was to show various objects in a white room being influenced by the black console, which has weird powers. Other spots showed a Rubik's cube and an egg, but it was the baby spot that creeped people out. "Good, bad, or indifferent, you are going to have an emotional reaction to that ad," Kaz Hirai, CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, told Fortune magazine at the time. "I want that kind of emotional swelling to be a reflection of what we're trying to accomplish with the PS3."

PlayStation 3 | Baby

7. K-Fee | Car Commercial

This spot has been floating around the internet for years, and is sometimes labeled a fake ad. But it did indeed run in Germany in 2004, and was created by Jung von Matt. It even won a Lion at Cannes that year, and a version with the translated English copy was shown by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. A jump scare at its most ridiculous. 

K-fee | Car

6. Dirt Devil | Exorcist

The woman in this cinematic German production for Dirt Devil, from 2011, is seen wailing and flailing around on a ceiling—evidently possessed by spirits. But there's a simpler explanation, as it turns out. It was made by director Andreas Roth, who was then a film student at Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg. It was said to be the fifth most viewed online film of 2011.

5. Skittles | Floor 9.5

In 2017, Mars and Fox teamed up to create a series of horror shorts, "presented by" various Mars candy brands. The one that got the most attention was Floor 9.5, written by Simon Allen and directed by Toby Meakins. It features an office worker who gets stuck between the 9th and 10th floors of a building while riding the elevator. Things only go downhill from there. Meakins told me at the time that he wanted "Floor 9.5" to feel like a "short Kafkaesque nightmare." He added: "The fragment was a single line—someone being followed from the front. We thought how weird and creepy that would be, if someone was always a few steps ahead of you no matter which way you turned. We plugged that into the loop/hell of Floor 9.5, which is intended to be a metaphor for modern working life."

4. Autoway Tyres | Snowy Tracks Are Scary

This one even comes with a health warning at the beginning, urging the faint of heart not to watch. Japanese agency BBDO J West made the spot in 2013 for Autoway Tyres, and it regularly makes lists of scariest commercials. The message on the laptop at the end reads, "Have you put your winter tires on?"

Autoway Tires | Snowy Tracks Are Scary

3. Fragile Childhood | Monsters

This chilling PSA arrived in 2012 courtesy of Finnish agency Euro RSCG Helsinki and a charity called Fragile Childhood. It shows kids being preyed upon by monsters—except it turns out, horrifyingly, that the children know the monsters very well indeed. 

Fragile Childhood | Monsters

2. Deep Silver | Dead Island: Trailer

Perhaps the most notorious video game trailer of all time, this 2011 film for Dead Island was famously greeted with derisive whistling when it was screened at Cannes Lions during the Film ceremony, where it won gold. Adweek named it the seventh best ad of that year, and it is a remarkable piece of craft from Glasgow-based Axis Animation—with its grotesque story of a zombie attack told in reverse, set to an emotional score by Giles Lamb.

1. Phones 4U | Little Girl 

The top spot on the list goes to agency Adam & Eve and client Phones 4U for this disturbing little tale of a ghost haunting a woman in a parking garage. I'd put some of the other spots above this one, but it does have a reliable jump scare. "Little Girl" prompted more complaints from viewers—over 600—than any other British ad in 2011, according to the Guardian. But it wasn't banned, as the country's advertising watchdog determined it was likely to cause "unease" but not serious or widespread offense. 

Phones 4U | Little Girl

Rebecca Waring, Unruly's global vp of insight and solutions, said that while all 10 spots on the list scored high marks for fear and shock factor, they didn't score as well in other areas—which should be a red flag for brands. 

"With Halloween fast approaching, it's only natural that brands want to join in the frightfest by pushing out content that would not look out of place in a horror movie," she said. "The ads that feature on Unruly's 'Terrifying 10' certainly do that. In fact, some should come with their own health warnings before you watch them. However, brands wanting to get into the spirit of Halloween also need to be careful because what's really frightening when you look down this list of ads is the impact they have on brand metrics." 

Waring adds: "Fear is a powerful emotion, but when you consider that most of this top 10 generated levels of brand favorability and purchase intent that were lower than average, it's something brands have to utilize well to really make the most of the opportunity. Testing a piece of content before you launch is a simple way for brands to minimize risk and ensure they are not left hiding behind the couch when looking at the campaign results. Don't post content based on a wing and a prayer or the results really could be terrifying."

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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