January 23, 2014 | Emily Winsauer

The Worst Advice We've Ever Heard about Fear-Based Marketing

As marketers, we've all heard it:

The best way to get people to take action is to find what they're afraid of and use it.

I'm here to argue that it can be straight-up irresponsible and even cruel to use fear and anxiety as marketing tactics. Yes, our customers have pain points, and addressing them is the major goal of marketing - but there's a huge difference between prodding your customers' pain points and addressing them.

Fear is probably the easiest emotion to tap in to with marketing - "Are you SURE your retirement savings is secure?" is a lot easier to sell than "With careful planning and consistent, long-term strategy, we can help you accomplish your financial goals."

Let's take the evening news as an example. Recently, I saw teaser spot for a special report in which the reporter said something like, "Is YOUR middle-schooler doing this dangerous new street drug? Learn more tonight!"

The effect of an approach like that is very different than if the story is presented in a different light, like this:

(NOTE: this is NOT a real statistic) "17% of middle schoolers report having access to illegal drugs. Learn more about how schools are addressing the problem, tonight at 11!"

There's even a body of academic research on how fear-driven marketing affects its intended audience. This research not only raises ethical questions about using people's fears to manipulate them, it also points to the potential long-term (well, long-ish term) effects of using anxiety in marketing.

A fear or panic response also has other, secondary emotional effects, and they both hurt the person you're talking to and reduce the effectiveness of your marketing. Consider the new mother who has just seen an add for a new infant formula. The company has threatened that only its formula contains enough of a compound essential to development (inevitably an unrecognizable acronym), and if her child isn't getting enough, his brain won't develop properly.

She's new to motherhood and the company may have made a sale, but by triggering strong, negative feelings, they've also opened her up to the watershed emotions that come with it - sadness, depressive symptoms, anxiety about the adequacy of other products she's using, and even different behaviors toward her child.

Other people will (rightly) respond with skepticism, which hurts your brand in their eyes.

Finally, many people are presented with so many threats to their health and safety, that you risk the "Oh well, everything causes cancer, so why try?" result.

Apart from the ethical concerns, this tactic won't be effective for long. Is fear-based marketing building a relationship with your customer? Will it earn repeat business? As Christina Gillick points out, selling to an existing customer is cheaper than earning a new one, and encouraging panic won't build the happy, secure customer base you need.

"Don't threaten your potential customers; reassure them"

Don't threaten your potential customers; reassure them instead. By recognizing their existing concerns and addressing them rather than creating new ones, you're earning a deeper level of trust and loyalty - you actually helped them, rather than scaring them and simply allaying the new fear.

How do you know if you're addressing your customer's fears in a respectful way?

Here are 2 rules of thumb for anxiety-driven marketing:

1. Avoid sensationalist language. If you're dealing with an existing concern, you'd don't need to amplify it - they're aware of the issues and the stakes. Giving them a solution they can actually use will be a huge relief.

2. Use statistics, data, or relatable common experiences to keep your claims grounded. Presenting yourself as a measured, understanding source of information builds your authority, reduces your customer's anxiety, and earns their trust.

Even though you can ethically, responsibly, and effectively use people's fears to inform your marketing, I would argue that the best and strongest advertising taps in to other emotions, like love - here are two great examples.

From Apple:

And (somewhat surprisingly) from AXE Body Spray:

These ads get a much stronger reaction out of me than fear-based ones—how about you?

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Emily Winsauer

Emily Winsauer

As VIEO's content director, Emily Winsauer was responsible for content strategy for VIEO and our clients for over 5 years. She recently moved to Seattle where she's still creating compelling content in her new role.

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