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Fear Marketing

In the mail yesterday I came across a direct mail piece for with the warning "more hurricanes predicted" – aiming to convince me to waterproof my home.  I can only hope that this piece was created before recent tragedies and not a deliberate attempt to cash in on the misfortune of others.  But it did start me thinking of this whole genre of marketing that is becoming more and more popular, perhaps in response to the American news media’s focus on the dangers of our society.  Evening news is about murders, arson, car accidents and shootings.  Primetime specials on 20/20 and the like promise vital scraps of information about products that "could kill us."  Even the political climate and messages from the government in the US ring of fear from elevated terror alerts to "credible threats."  In our society of fear, it is no surprise that fear marketing is becoming so widespread, and even more disturbingly, that it works so well.

Fear marketers paint the picture of what your life might be like if you don’t get their product.  They play into already existing fears, or paint new ones that consumers may never have considered.  The end result is the consumer perception that the advertised product or service is a necessity to keep their family safe, make their life less dangerous, or avoid a situation they dread. But should we do it?  Doesn’t this type of marketing just add to the plague of society, fostering fear and making us a weaker people as a result?  Probably – but the problem with fear marketing is that it often works.  And for many marketers, it’s tough to leave behind a morally questionable strategy when it ends up working.  Especially when you can’t get sued for it.

8 thoughts on “Fear Marketing”

  1. Interesting post. It seems to me this isn’t a new practice – surely this is only what the IT industry did with Y2K and what manufacturers of bomb shelters did during the cold war (there are many more examples I’m sure). Is it not just with the ever increasing speed and availability of information these days that it’s just more visible?

    Having said that, if you take a more cynical view, then perhaps it is the corporate world cashing in on the high profile of recent disasters. Ethical or not, it probably makes good business.

    Perhaps it’s both i.e. an old practice that’s increasingly seen as unethical as people start to look to businesses to behave responsibly?

  2. The company that attempts to instill fear, is the same one that offers to “help you”. That’s not a good way to build a trust relationship – but then again, not all markets *require* businesses to behave responsibly the way the online community does.

    Businesses with a traditional (offline) client base will most likely hold onto fear marketing for as long as they can. Unfortunately, it works.

  3. “He has not learned the first lesson in life who does not every day surmount a fear.”
    – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Excellent article. People buy because of fear. People fear death. They fear getting old. They fear going broke. They fear missing out. Fear comes in many forms and is the most powerful motivator causing people to buy. Always try to work fear into your marketing literature. I drink orange juice and take a multi-vitamin pill every morning not because I like the taste or want to be super healthy but because I fear getting sick if I do not. I take my car in to have the oil changed every 6 months not because I want my car to run well but because I fear my car breaking down if I do not.

    The reason fear is the most powerful motivator to get people to do what you want stems from the basic need for survival. If you can scare people into buying your product out of fear they will die, you will be guaranteed to increase your sales. “Buy this nicotine patch, this nicotine gum, instead of buying smokes, and live longer” is the basic sales pitch. Nicotine patches and nicotine gum as a solution to breaking a smoking addiction in order to live longer is very powerful sales copy.

    OnStar used fear to make billions. Their best pulling ad was an actual recorded call of a little girl saying, “We just had an accident and my Mom isn’t moving, please help!” This planted the idea in peoples minds that what if that happened to me when I was driving? What would my daughter do if we did not have OnStar?

    The tragedy that results in market cycles can be used to make money. I wrote a sales letter for a property management company that advertised their single family home services with the headline, “Afraid Of Losing Your Home To Foreclosure?”

    Anger is a subset of fear. On 911 Americans, across the country, went out and bought American flags to hang on their houses and cars. Fear lasted about 3 days after the attack, then anger took over.

    Anger can be a very powerful motivator. People hire a lawyer to sue because they are angry at someone. People will go to war because of anger.

    Always consider both fear and anger and which is stronger. For example:

    “Afraid Of The IRS?”
    “Angry At The IRS?”

    In this case, anger is the slightly stronger emotion and is the one you should use in the context above. Here is another example:

    “Afraid Of A Fire?”
    “Hate Fires?”

    Fear is slightly stronger than hate (anger) in the example above and should be the one you use.

    Always consider both fear and anger as one emotional category and test both, in the context of your product or service, to see which is stronger.

    Perhaps the most famous use of fear in advertising ever was Tony Schwartz’s legendary ‘Daisy Ad’ for the Johnson campaign. Schwartz suffered from agoraphobia, an abnormal fear of open or public places, and so he understood the controlling power of fear very well.

    The ad was broadcast on Sept. 7, 1964, during NBC’s “Monday Night at the Movies.” It showed a little girl in a meadow (in reality a Manhattan park), counting aloud as she plucks the petals from a daisy. Her voice dissolves into a man’s voice counting downward, followed by the image of an atomic blast. President Johnson’s voice is heard on the soundtrack:

    “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

    A combination of fear and vanity marketing is often used by plastic surgeons. The idea is to appeal to peoples’ vanity by exposing their fear of aging.

    Kevin Trudeau combines self-improvement with fear in his sales copy: “Natural Cures They Don’t Want You To Know About!” The first sentence in his sales copy reads, “The revolutionary book that talks about the reasons you are sick and how the American Medical Association, Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the pharmaceutical cartels are suppressing information about natural remedies and natural cures for virtually every disease.”

    As the great Abraham Maslow wrote, “Practically everything looks less important than safety.”

    People buy a little to gain something, but they buy a lot when they fear losing something important if they do not. If guns were outlawed by Congress and the public was told that, after next Friday, they could never purchase a gun again, gun stores across the country would sell out in short order. Even people who never considered owning a gun would rush out and buy one because of their fear at missing out on a last chance opportunity. Last chance sales copy is always very powerful.

  4. Happy people don’t buy things. People buy things to get happiness and contentment. We would all be living in mud huts eating nuts and berries if we were not driven by discontentment to improve our level of comfort.

  5. The sad truth is that people will do just about anything to sell the product they are promoting without much thought given to the psychological effect on consumers. Great post.


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