Why Fear Sells: The Business of Panic & Paranoia

This passage is excerpted from my book, “Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.”

Clearly, fear is a powerful persuader, and you’d better believe that marketers and advertisers know it and aren’t afraid to exploit it to the fullest. Which is why the marketing world uses scare tactics to sell us everything from antidepressants to condoms, dental floss to laundry detergent, burglar alarms to cell phones, bottled water to pizza dough, as well as countless other brands and products. I recall once seeing a vintage 1950s ad for lunchbox thermoses that bore the unforgettable tagline “A Fly in the Milk May Mean a Baby in the Grave.” Advertisers have since gotten a lot more subtle and creative in the ways they use fear to persuade us.

But really, I don’t mean to scare you.

Perhaps you recall a 1994 TV advertisement for an Aquafresh toothbrush. In one hand a woman is holding up a toothbrush, in the other, a ripe tomato. “With this tomato, I’m going to make an important point about your toothbrush,” she says, pressing the bristles into the poor tomato, creating a gash that resembles a bleeding gum. “Only Aquafresh Flex Brush has a unique, pressure-sensitive neck that bends and flexes if you press too hard,” the woman continues, “so you can prevent damaging your gums, while still giving your teeth a thorough cleaning.”

On the face of it, Aquafresh was just using a simple prop to show how great its product was. But in fact something a little bit more subtle and sneaky was going on. After all, a prop resembling a bleeding gum calls to mind only one thing: a trip to the dentist. What else could be more universally terrifying?

So besides dentists and germs, what other kinds of fears do companies play on in marketing us their products? For one, the fear of failure. In a surprising 2008 study, researchers at the University of Bath, U.K., found that the fear of failure drives consumers far more than the promise of success; the latter oddly tends to paralyze us, while the former spurs us on (and pries open our wallets). In fact, as the study found, the most powerful persuader of all was giving consumers a glimpse of some future “feared self.”

We all have some version of a future self we’d take great pains to avoid. Do most of us go to the gym because we want to be healthy, or because we’re scared of getting flabby or out of shape? Do we bathe, shampoo, and brush and floss our teeth out of reverence for the rules of hygiene, or are we imagining the “feared self ” we might resemble if we smelled bad, our hair were scraggly and unwashed, and our teeth were rotted and yellow? I can’t help but think back to a classic L’Oréal ad in which an older man is walking down the street. To our eyes, he looks great — dapper and distinguished. The camera then cuts to a beautiful younger woman passing him by. And through her eyes we see him as old, decrepit, and repulsive — his worst-feared self realized.

Sometimes, advertisers prey on our fears of our worst selves by activating insecurities that we didn’t even know we had — like about the appearance of our armpits. This is exactly what Dove’s recent “Go Sleeveless” ad campaign was doing; by claiming that their new special moisturizing formula will make our underarms “not only odor-free but prettier,” Dove was subconsciously planting the fear that our armpits might be not only smelly but also hideous. As Slate aptly pointed out, “Dove’s empowerment-via-shame marketing approach for Go Sleeveless has its roots in advertising techniques that gained popularity in the 1920s: a) pinpoint a problem, perhaps one consumers didn’t even know they had; b) exacerbate anxiety around the problem; c) sell the cure.” Among the many “feared selves” that have been historically planted by marketers, the article cites such concerns as “bad breath,” “smelly underarms,” and “the many troubles down there.”

It’s these seemingly infinite fears — some planted in our minds by marketers and advertisers, others merely amplified by them — that drive us to buy triple-moisturizing creams and heat-safe leave-in conditioners, teeth-whitening strips and multivitamins. Not to mention gym memberships and organic food and bottled water and humidifiers (and dehumidifiers) and designer clothing and Viagra and earthquake insurance and water-filtration systems and plastic surgery and bike locks and … burglar alarms.

The reason ads like these work so well is because they hit us in two powerful places. Fear and its close cousin, guilt. I consider guilt to be a global virus. And no one is better at spreading that virus than marketers and advertisers. As an article that appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2006 explained, fear mixed with a high level of blame, regret, guilt, or even a dare tends to translate emotion into action. This instinctively makes sense; after all, isn’t it the combination of fear and guilt that makes you reach for the nicotine gum instead of the cigarettes or baked Cheetos over the fried ones? (I might add that the packaging of these baked snacks is designed with the “feared self ” of today’s health-conscious woman in mind. Note the matte, unshiny bags they come in, compared to the slippery, gleaming bags enclosing regular Cheetos, which subconsciously remind us of oily, greasy skin.) In short, fear and guilt are marketers’ one-two punch.

“Your dad wants you to have things he never had. Like hair,” reads the ad for Rogaine. Immediately the male viewer thinks about his hardworking, self-sacrificing father — before terror of losing more inches of his own rapidly retreating hairline sets in. Notice the sly combination of guilt and fear at work here?

Pharmaceutical ads play on our fear of death and disease and aging to get us to buy their products. But I believe that’s not the only fear tactic at work. Pharmaceutical companies also play on one of the most subtle yet powerful of psychological tricks: our fear of social isolation, of being outsiders. Countless studies show that humans have a universal need to belong (dating way back to our early ancestors, for whom survival depended on being a member of a band or tribe); for most of us, the thought of being left out or alone is terrifying.

So whether it’s germs or disease or some feared version of a future self, marketers are amazingly adept at identifying a fear out of the zeitgeist, activating it, amplifying it, and preying on it in ways that hit us at the deepest subconscious level.

(Editor’s note: This passage is excerpted from the book, “Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy” by Martin Lindstrom is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)–>

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