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Fear-Based Marketing: Effective or Evil?

By March 5, 2014July 1st, 2015Marketing Insights & Strategy
Fear-Based Marketing: Effective or Evil?

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.

Listerine adYes, 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.

The Verdict

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.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • “As marketers, we’re not being evil. We’re doing our job.”

    Loved it, Scott!

    Loved the ad too….It’s the first time I am watching (I am too young to know that ad!)

    I agree with you…it’s all good as long as we are basing it on facts, instead of blatantly lying about our product and what it does.

    I haven’t used fear….well, in marketing. I do love it, though. Using my fears to motivate me to take action, to be focused (it’s a great technique, as long as I am in control – don’t let our emotions cloud our judgement).

    Anyways, thank you for the tips, Scott 🙂

    I can probably add a bit of fear to my call to actions (for my writing/consultancy services. I am planning to launch that by the end of this year, so I have lots of time to think about it).

    • Thanks, Jeevan. Using fear in your call-to-action would be a great idea as long as it reinforces your marketing message. In other words, I wouldn’t introduce fear in the call-to-action, but I would certainly use it to reinforce the fear-based angle.

  • Adrienne says:

    You’re right Scott, not all marketers do this the right way because there are some things we should be fearful of if we don’t take action. I just hate being lied to or things overly exaggerated which is why so much of that turns me off.

    I don’t really use fear but I’m not going to rule it out for in the future. I do think though that I will take the more respectful approach.

    That was a horrible ad for Listerine by the way but I did think the video about drugs was very affective. It should have been at least!


    • Hi Adrienne – I think too many people confuse a fear-based message with trying to scare people, an approach that I would avoid. On the other hand, fear is totally legitimate.

      For example, Ameriprise is running a retirement planning campaign based on the question, “Will you outlive your money?” I think that’s such a smart, powerful message because it’s based in reality, even though it may scare people. And if you’re not planning properly for retirement, it should scare you. This is why the use of fear is such a balancing act.