How Fear Sells Itself


In 1926 a priest named Father Ronald Knox caused panic in Britain when his radio drama, Broadcasting from the Barricades was first aired.The radio drama began innocently enough with a lecture on 18th century literature followed by the news and an update on the cricket scores, but by the time the 12 minute programme had ended one woman had fainted and another listener had called the Admiralty and demanded that the Navy be dispatched to London immediately.

Much like the Orson Wells production of War of the Worlds 12 years later, Father Knox used fake news reports to create a sense of fear among the people listening to the broadcast. As the BBC mention, “The Russian revolution was then less than a decade old, the General Strike already in preparation”. Father Knox tapped into this general sense of fear. Fake news and the sound of oranges being smashed in a studio was enough to convince many listeners that “…Big Ben had been toppled by trench mortars, the Savoy Hotel torched and a Government minister lynched”.

Father Knox and Orson Wells managed to tap into the fears of their audience and many marketers have also adopted the same tactics. We take a look at why so many companies market by fear and how you too can dance with the devil to make sales.

A recent post by Seth Godin highlighted three forms of marketing, fear, love and hope. There are obvious examples of fear marketing, such as, security firms and defence manufacturers, but the “pick up artist” also relies on fear marketing to make their money.

A pick up artist, according to Wikipedia is: “a term used to a term used to describe a man who is skilled in meeting, attracting, and seducing women”. As we can see from the following extract from an article on The Times website, the pick up artist sell their books and courses through fear:

Ross Jeffries, the man whom Strauss and every other “guru” acknowledges as the father of the modern seduction movement, believes there is a huge secondary market that is yet to be tapped. “At the moment,” Jeffries says, the seduction market is chiefly “guys who can’t get women at all”. The huge secondary market he foresees is “guys who want to trade up… guys who are living with women they are not attracted to and have to talk themselves into staying with”.
[emphasis mine]

The pick up artist relies on the fear of loneliness. The secondary market mentioned in the article, might arguably be more “hope” based marketing, but currently, the pick up artists main marketing weapon is fear. And it seems to be working, with some short courses costing £1,000 or more.

The majority of beauty products also operate on exploiting personal insecurity. As Marilyn Manson points out in the documentary, Bowling for Columbine, we’re sold beauty and hygiene products through fear. You need toothpaste so you don’t have bad breath, otherwise nobody will talk to you and you need acne cream so that the opposite sex will find you attractive. As Manson says, “Keep everyone afraid and they’ll consume”.

Successful fear marketing

Fear can motivate people to take action. Anti-smoking campaigns are usually marketed to make people fear the consequences of smoking. The fear you are trying to tap into must be significant enough that people will be worried about it and also be relevant to that individual.

Kim Witte’s paper on fear appeal explains that successful messages marketed by fear usually illustrate “high levels of threat” and “high levels of efficacy”. From the paper:

“…the interaction between threat and efficacy has not been consistently represented or addressed in fear appeal studies. Rogers and colleagues (e.g., Kleinot & Rogers, 1982; Rogers & Mewborn, 1976) have demonstrated that fear appeals with high levels of threat (e.g., “you are susceptible to the severe disease AIDS”) and high levels of efficacy (e. 8·, “you are able to effectively and easily prevent AIDS by using condoms”) produce message acceptance. In contrast, fear appeals with high levels of threat (e.g., “lung cancer is a severe disease that you are susceptible to because you smoke cigarettes”) and low levels of efficacy (e.g., “it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to quit smoking cigarettes, and it’s probably too late to prevent lung cancer anyway”) result in message rejection.”

So, according to Witte’s research, in order to effectively market through fear you’ll need to:

  • Highlight a severe enough threat
  • Provide an actionable solution to combat the threat

Highlighting a severe threat doesn’t mean that you have to convince someone their life will be over if they don’t respond to your marketing message. As this article on investopdia points out, the fear of missing an opportunity to make money can be a more powerful motivator than fear of losing your lifesavings. Much like the example of lung disease marketing in the Witte paper, people probably feel there is little they can do about losing their entire lifesavings, but they will take action if they feel the problem is something they have some control over.

If you can show your audience that you can provide a simple to use solution to their problems they’ll jump at the chance to use your product or service.

How to use fear

If you’re looking to utilize fear marketing in your own campaign then you need to remember the following key points:

Highlight a severe enough threat: As explained above, the threat doesn’t necessarily need to suggest that a persons life is in danger, just that there is a enough of a threat to make it worthwhile responding to the danger.

Make the problem relevant to the individual: We see thousands of messages each day and ignore the vast majority of them. You need an individual to relate to a problem before they will accept the solution. As Witte shows, most examples of fear marketing need to contain “personalistic language”, such as, “smokers like you”.

Provide a simple solution to combat the threat: Your solution needs to be simple enough that people feel they still have control over the final outcome. If the solution is too difficult to undertake or doesn’t represent any value in response to the problem then it’s unlikely that people will take action.

Fear of missing out: Most sales pages are written to highlighting benefits, however, if you show someone what they could lose out on then they might be more inclined to take action. This can be achieved through mentioning that influencers are already listening to your message or by using limited time offers. In terms of social media marketing, the impact of influencers is probably the most successful method for compelling people to take action. If you can convince key influencers in your particular field to use your product or service then other people are likely to follow.

Fear marketing in the near future

There’s been much talk about a recession in the US, but with the interdependence between nations, a US recession is likely to affect other parts of the world too. A global recession means that fear marketing will become far more prevalent over the next few years.

Fear is a basic survival instinct. In a recession, more people will be out of work and be afraid of losing their homes and that will compel them to take more chances on marketing messages that play on our sense of insecurity. When the going gets tough, people get desperate.

Just because some unscrupulous people use fear marketing, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a bad thing. Fear marketing can lead to positive outcomes. It probably curtailed the spread of HIV/AIDS in many countries and lowered the rate of drink-driving accidents. Fear marketing doesn’t mean you have to emulate Mr Burns, just that you have to scare people enough to take action.

What are your thoughts on fear marketing? Leave your opinions below

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

    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.

  1. Steven - Mar 8th, 2008