How Fear-Based Marketing Can Be Effective

In my last column, “Neuromarketing: Why Fear Sells, Sex Doesn’t“, I examined some of the findings that Martin Lindstrom writes about in his book, “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy.” I received some great feedback specifically around the idea of “fear sells, sex doesn’t” and am dedicating this piece to addressing some of your questions and points.

Most of the feedback condemned fear-based advertising as an ineffective way of building a brand, and I agree that scaring the pants off your customers is a poor way to get them to like you. I come from the agency world where using words like “suffering from” and “dealing with” are struck from the lexicon and replaced with terms like “living with” and “triumphing through.” I understand the long-term affects of negative communication.

There are ways to use innate human fear or apprehension to empower consumers and allow them to be in control. The digital realm (i.e., social media) becomes the perfect hosting ground for this.

Instead of directly intimating someone with a direct “scare tactic” message, you create programs where consumers not only discover information, but can also share it with others in a non-paralyzing way. Intuitively, people want to be liked and socially accepted, therefore, we’re conditioned with presenting difficult information with each other in non–abrasive manner.

One easy way we do this is to begin with three-powerful words: “In my experience…” For instance, “In my experience, I wouldn’t be here today without the help of (fill in the blank) drug, car, doctor, etc.”

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a life or death issue. When I was preparing for the birth of my twins and afraid that once they were born I would never sleep again, I purchased many products that would help them sleep based on the recommendations of other parents of twins participating in chat boards and blogs. In my experience, I sought this information out and the Internet created an environment for me to discover it in. This is different than an ad for a swaddle blanket showcasing a mother with dark circles under her eyes, crying that she hasn’t slept in five years.

Although most of us don’t want to admit that we are influenced by fear because it makes us feel powerless and weak, it still is the strongest human motivator (that’s why creating programs where people feel empowered is a smart strategy). Think about the how your parents got you to act or react to situations from when you were an infant. If you have children now, I’m sure you’re paying it forward. Here are a few of my favorite:

  • “Don’t play with (interject any long, slim object) or you will poke your eye out.” It must work, because I have never met anyone who has actually ever poked his or her eye out.
  • “If you pull a face like that it will stick like that.” Yep, we all know a few people this has happened to.
  • “If you fall out of that tree and break your legs don’t come running.” Makes sense.
  • “Don’t sit so close to television or you’ll go blind.” I still don’t sit close to the television.

Clearly our parents could have worked at advertising agencies or media agencies since not only did they have the messaging down pat, but they also understood message frequency and relevance quite well. If we think about most of the major decisions that we’ve made in our lives, they are a result of fear. Don’t get an A in chemistry = don’t go to a good college = don’t make any money = end up homeless = end up alone = end up in Potter’s Field.

Yet, there’s an apparent contradiction over the increase in smoking as a result of cigarette warning labels and the role of fear. Aren’t people afraid of dying from lung cancer? Of course they are, but they are also afraid of quitting smoking. Withdrawal (or even planning to withdraw) from smoking will provoke the same physiological factors — like increased heart rate, worry, anxiousness or jitteriness — as any other response to a fearful situation. And smoking in general is a relaxant from these symptoms. It’s no surprise then that individuals with anxiety disorder are twice more likely to smoke than those without anxiety. Therefore, any of our senses that remind a smoker about a cigarette (including a label) are likely to bring about a physiological desire for one that surpasses the inherit risks of smoking.

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