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Ambulances, Car Crashes, and Why Fear Will Always Be a Marketer’s Best Weapon

Ever notice how everyone turns to look when an ambulance goes by?

Or how traffic seems to stop whenever there’s a crash on the side of the road?

Something scary is happening, and people can’t help wanting to see what’s going on. It’s a basic aspect of human nature, and marketers use it to get you to pay attention.

Just look at the news. It seems like every night the TV news features a story about a new product that could kill you, a pending storm, a crime wave, or yet another political demagogue.


Because fear sells.

If they promise to reveal information about the newest product recalls or health scare, more viewers will tune in. People want to know what this new threat is and will go out of their way to make sure they’re informed.

More fear equals more viewers, and more viewers equals more advertising dollars. The equation is as simple as that.

Lots of people hate the constant fear mongering, sure, but there’s no denying that it works. And smart marketers in all areas of business look for ways to include it in their marketing.

Here’s why:

Fear Influences Every Purchase Decision

It doesn’t matter what product you’re selling. At least part of every purchase decision consumers make is based on fear.

For some products, it’s obvious. People buy smoke detectors because they’re afraid of fire. They buy burglar alarms because they’re afraid of being robbed. They buy cars with air bags and high safety ratings because they’re afraid of being injured in a car accident.

But what about buying something like… oh… children’s toys?

Well, let’s picture the typical scenario.

It’s three weeks before Christmas, and your six-year-old gives you his Christmas list to send to Santa Claus. At the top of the list is a Nintendo Wii. He wants one more than anything else in the world, and he begs Santa to give him one.

At first, you’re resistant to the idea. You’re thinking about buying him a new set of encyclopedias, a NetBook, or karate lessons — you know, something he can use.

But then you imagine Christmas morning. His face filled with joy, he races down the stairs and goes straight to the box that looks like a Nintendo Wii. He tears the wrapping paper off, his eyes glowing with anticipation, and finds… a brand-new set of encyclopedias.

The anticipation turns to horror. His eyes fill with tears. He won’t come out of his bedroom for the rest of the day, and that night, he asks you if Santa Claus is real. You tell him no, and his disappointment turns to anger as he realizes you’re the one who let him down. Putting him to bed, you realize nothing will ever be the same between you again, and you hate yourself for not having bought that Nintendo Wii.

Or so you imagine, and it terrifies you so deeply that you rush to the mall and stand in line with 500 other people to buy one.

The truth: fear can sell anything. You just have to know how to use it.

A Simple but Powerful Question

To figure out what the fear motivation is for virtually any product, look at what consumers want when they purchase it, and then ask a simple but powerful question:

What’s the worst that could happen?

For example, when a woman buys designer clothes, she wants to look good, she wants quality, and she likely wants to impress people. Probably no big deal if she doesn’t buy it, right? But what’s the worst that could happen?

Well, she could miss out on a promotion at work because her boss doesn’t think she looks like a leader. She could meet the love of her life wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, and he could get sidetracked by the model wearing designer clothes, forgetting about her forever. Or, it could even be something simple like her friends would talk behind her back, wondering why she can’t find the money to find better clothes, and she could overhear them and feel embarrassed.

All very strong, fear-based motivations.

And here’s the question: what’s more likely to get her to take the clothes off the rack: the desire to look nice or the fear of getting passed over at work, forgotten by her true love, and embarrassed by her friends?

Yeah. Not even close.

Consumers Want to Purchase Reassurance

When a consumer buys something, they want reassurance that the thing they’re buying is going to address the fears they have.

They want to know that buying the automatic backup program for their computer means they don’t have to worry about losing their files.

They want to know that buying that new book that "everyone is talking about" will mean they’re not going to be left out of the conversation at the next cocktail party.

They want to know that buying a AAA membership will mean they’ll never be stranded, that there will be a pickup truck and a friendly repair man to ready to help them, whenever and wherever they break down.

It’s all about reassurance. When devising your marketing message, figure out what your consumers are afraid of, and then address how your product can fix that problem.

Reassure them that, with your product, they have nothing to be afraid of.

Can’t You Take It Too Far?

Sure, just look at political campaign ads. Coming to a town near you this fall, opponents will be beating each other into oblivion, all in a cutthroat game to win (or protect) a congressional seat.

And it’ll work.

Politicians have long known that scaring voters is an almost sure-fire way of getting votes. Usually, whoever paints the nastiest, most horrifying picture of the other guy wins. It doesn’t even matter if it’s true. People pick the lesser of two evils, and the winner gets a cushy job in Washington.

But there’s a problem: we end up hating both of them.

You don’t have to be a political buff to know pretty much everyone is dissatisfied with all politicians. According to a poll by Gallup last year, Senators ranked just under car salesmen in terms of how trustworthy they are. There are a lot of reasons why, but one of them is we’re sick and tired of all the fear mongering.

So how do you avoid crossing over the line?

I know of only one way:

Tell the Truth

If you tell people the truth, and it’s scary, that’s fine. They’ll respect you for it.

Take FedEx advertising campaigns, for instance. With slogans like, "Absolutely, Positively Overnight," "Be Absolutely Sure," and "Relax, it’s FedEx," they’re playing on your fear of your package not arriving on time or at all.

And it works because it’s true: delayed and lost shipments really are a problem. No, not nearly as much as they were 30 years ago, but sometimes you want to "be absolutely sure," and in those cases, it’s worth paying FedEx or one of its competitors.

Other campaigns though are offensive, or worse, laughable. Instead of frightening teenagers from taking drugs, the infamous "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" was just a big joke. Everyone knew it was an exaggeration, and so it lost credibility.

The lesson?

Tell the truth.

Don’t distort or invent facts, simply to frighten your customers. Fear-based marketing is at its most powerful when it is most real. Find a threat your customers are genuinely afraid of, and then use it to motivate them to act.

It’s a thin line, yes, but it’s the game we play.

You don’t want to end up on the wrong side, now do you?

  1. Perfect example, safety upgrades in baby gear like car seats. Marketing or bust? It’s hard to draw the line, which means marketing is not serving parents well, but is taking advantage of the fear factor to charge a bundle for features we would not want to pass on – for “fear” we might jeopardize our kids’ safety.

  2. All part of the corporatists propaganda bundle, and the reason America is going bust today! Google, Torrent, the movie, “Who Stole the Electric Car” just to find out who these crooks are and the damage they can do to the common American patriot!

  3. Without fear no one would buy warranties. Fear is the main component in selling warranties for products.

  4. Loren Woirhaye Sep 07, 2010 at 9:47 am

    Fear is a great motivator, but usually as marketers we need to drill down and locate a specific hot button we want to press.

    In the case of the woman shopping for the new clothes the button might be:

    – fear of not fitting in
    – fear of not keeping-up with the Joneses
    – fear of mismanaging her identity as a fashion-forward individual

    The last is actually a refinement of the other two tapping into the prospect’s feelings of self worth and how she represents her self-worth in her own self-talk.

  5. Very interesting… I may be able to use fear to promote my newest website.

  6. When people say that marketer are the cancer of this world, I really have to agree with them. =)

    I hope hell is gives you fear enough.


  7. But the application of fear will depend on the product you are trying to promote. It can’t be applied to all.

  8. Exactly why Volvo markets their “safety” message to mothers and people who’ve been in accidents… and NOT to 16 year old boys (who could care less about safety, and care more about the attention of 16 year old girls). Fear sells to the right audience.

  9. Thanks for share this brilliant concepts with us.


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