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Fear is one of our most primal emotions, instilled from infancy. When my dad said I better stop crying or he’d give me something to cry about, do you know what I did?
I shut the hell up.
Yes, our natural instinct to avoid danger or harm is a powerful motivator and influencer of behavior. Always has been, always will be.
Not surprisingly, marketers caught on to this fact decades ago, whether they were selling financial services or personal hygiene products. And while many marketers took a respectable approach, others went straight for the gutter.
For example, in this 1932 advertorial, Listerine tried to make women feel like they would end up with a dog instead of a husband because of bad breath. (Image courtesy of Duke University Libraries)
On the other hand, you’ll probably remember this legendary and hugely influential anti-drug message, which also spawned its fair share of spoofs:
The Three Basic Steps of Fear-Based Marketing
Scientific studies have been done to evaluate various approaches to fear-based marketing, but appealing to someone’s fear typically involves three steps.
1) Present a risk or threat that arouses fear. The risk or threat has to be realistic and severe enough to motivate your audience to act. This is why you need to do your research and know your audience instead of making assumptions.
2) Show how vulnerable your audience is. If you try to scare someone with sensationalistic claims, you’re being manipulative. Instead, discuss the real consequences of not acting.
3) Explain how you can protect your audience. Convince your audience that the risk reduction or threat removal is worth the effort and cost involved with using your product or service.
This is when most marketers screw up. They revert to marketing-speak, going on and on about how wonderful their product is.
A critical part of the third step is building up your audience’s self-efficacy – the belief that they’re physically, mentally and emotionally strong enough to take action. If someone feels they can’t control their fear, they won’t act.
In other words, you’re not just selling your product as the solution. You’re empowering your audience to face and overcome their fear.
Helping People Overcome Fear to Make Positive Changes
In a previous post, I discussed the power of pain point marketing. Like pain point marketing, fear-based marketing doesn’t exploit people’s desperation. It also doesn’t have to involve a life or death situation.
Are financial advisors being evil if they warn people of the consequences of failing to save for retirement?
Is a doctor being evil by telling people that drinking one can of soda per day can dramatically increase their chance of chronic illness? True, by the way, according to a recent study.
There’s a big difference between persuasion and manipulation. Fear-based marketing can be a perfectly acceptable and ethical approach to marketing, as long as it’s based in reality, and especially when you use marketing to build trust and establish yourself or your company as an authority.
When delivered powerfully yet respectfully, fear-based marketing does more than motivate people to buy products and services. It can motivate people make positive changes in their lives.
Many people tend to bury their fears and pretend they don’t exist. They allow their emotions to cloud the cold, hard facts and refuse to admit they’re afraid of anything. A fear-based marketing message can help people accept reality and face their fears.
Some marketers believe any negativity is poison in marketing, and tapping into someone’s fear is the equivalent of emotional blackmail.
Unfortunately, real life isn’t all pretty flowers and rainbows. Marketing should reflect real life, complete with real fears and real problems. Imagine the sense of relief someone would feel if you empower them to overcome their fear and neutralize a genuine risk or threat.
As marketers, we’re not being evil. We’re doing our job.