Boo! Scared? I didn’t think so. When marketers talk about using fear to sell something, it’s not about frightening the potential customer. Using fear is truly about painting a picture of the status quo or an alternative second reality that doesn’t sound as good as the benefit provided from buying a product/service. That Trident gum commercial I used as an example of “reality” marketing yesterday is also an example of “fear” marketing: if your status quo is not chewing Trident, well, your teeth will rot and your breath will stink.
Since the human condition settles around both the fear of the unknown (I don’t know what’s around the corner) and the fear of what we think might happen (I just know everyone will ridicule me if I have rotten teeth and stinky breath), fear marketing is pretty easy when coupled with a realistic situation. The best horror films are the ones where you can easily put yourself in the place of the victim without having to first buy into the “creativity.” It’s easy to find fear in the movie Psycho because being pushed down the stairs or getting stabbed in the shower is a believable alternative second reality that might be around the corner for any of us. Fighting giant spiders on far away planets takes a lot more work, since you have to first fall into the “creative” (imaginary) element first.
Children feel a lot more emotion after having a story book read to them than would an adult, only because a child has fewer filters to sort out what could be real, and what clearly isn’t. Since adults are the ones with buying power, marketers need to keep the fear and the reality in tandem so as to avoid the filters. Corporations do this to employees: the realistic situation is that sales numbers need to be met in order to pay salaries. The alternative second reality is: if the sales numbers aren’t met, will I get demoted, will the company fold, will I loose my job (unknown fear) and, if I loose my job, can my spouse support me, can I keep my home, can I survive (fear of what we think)? These realistic fears push you to make the numbers.
What if corporations didn’t use fear in a real sense? What if the message was: sales numbers need to be met in order to keep flying neon bunnies out of harm’s way. Well, honestly, you’re probably not too worried about the flying neon bunnies since they aren’t part of your reality. It’s absurd. But it doesn’t matter! Absurd, far fetched, or just too abstract to visualize, if the element of fear is too far away from your reality, it won’t motivate you in any direction. Take out “flying neon” from this last message. It’s no longer absurd. But does it work as an alternative second reality? If you are on the 58th floor of a sky rise in a major city, likely not. If you raise rabbits for a living, it probably does. Reality to you is all that matters. For marketers, it’s the reality of their customers.
The overarching point here in how marketers can use fear effectively is to know their audience or use universal concepts (stairs = universal; bunnies = segment; neon bunnies = absurd). Absurd concepts will backfire badly. Without reality behind the message, you might as well be selling tickets to see the giant spiders on distant planets.