Catalytic Thinking

The use of fear

What’s better – to obey through fear or through agreement?

Fear is probably good for you. It makes your heart race, your awareness heighten and releases a host of endorphins that you wouldn’t get otherwise. But is it really the right way to sell your product or cause?

There have been a number of interesting articles recently about the use of fear or guilt in marketing/advertising campaigns and how effective this approach is.

Chronologically speaking, the first of these comes from Marketing Week and examines the way that guilt makes us act – and, most importantly, how this can be leveraged. Then came a piece in PR Week, this time backed up by audience research. And finally an article in The Drum, centring around research being carried out by Richard Hayes of the University of Salford.

There’s no doubt that, as referenced in Marketing Week’s piece, negativity bias plays an important part in some consumer’s decision making processes. In other words, it’s potentially easier to frighten someone into action than it is to reward them into it. Tell someone that if they don’t use a certain cleaning product, their family will be liable to die of swine flu (or whatever variant is currently causing global hysteria). Show a smoker a set of blackened lungs and a man with a tube up his nose. Show a kid going through a windscreen because he’s not been wearing his seatbelt.

These examples are designed to shock and frighten, causing the viewer to take action in order to stop these things happening to them. It’s much, much, more difficult to produce a positive message dealing with these topics.

However, negativity bias can have other consequences, including disempowerment and cognitive dissonance, which, if going hand-in-hand, can create a significant barrier to message acceptance/retention in the audience.

Disempowerment is a particularly unhelpful side-effect of fear advertising – and the various early campaigns over global warming are quite decent examples.

The disempowerment argument runs thus: I’m one person and the Earth is a massive eco-system that’s looked after itself for long enough. What good can I do alone? So I won’t do anything – I’ll just not get any worse [rather than take positive action].

In the cognitive dissonance scenario, we’re told that driving our cars is killing the planet. But I love driving, I’m a petrol head. I want the biggest, fastest engine known to man. But I don’t want to hurt the planet. What to do?
It’s a very uncomfortable position where my desire for a car is placed against the fear of killing the planet. I can’t do one without losing the other. I feel like a cat-powered monorail at rush hour…

As Richard Hayes so rightly observes, the marketing communications process is a two-way affair (or at least it should be: the worst sort of marketing is where you communicated AT someone rather than WITH, but that’s a whole different story). So, if we take this in the context of a conversation, it might go something like this:

Person 1: By driving that Jeep, you’re killing the planet.
Person 2: That may be so, but I like my Jeep. I need a car and I live in the country.
Person 1: You could get a smaller 4×4 which doesn’t drink so much fuel.
Person 2: But I like the way my Jeep looks. And I can get my fishing roads in the back as well as the dog.
Person 1: But there are newer cars with more space which are more fuel efficient and look better.
Person 2: I don’t care – I like my Jeep.
Person 1: What about the ozone layer?
Person 2: Methane does more damage – are you going to kill all the cows?
Person 1: ….

You see how this is going – into an intractable and very circular argument which simply serves to entrench each person in their own view.
(OK so this is perhaps a little extreme and not how most conversations go, but you get my point).

This is, for those of you wondering what the point of that little tale was, when fear advertising doesn’t work because of cognitive dissonance and the argumentativeness that it can produce.

On another part of the spectrum, there are some adverts so horrible that people screen them out instantly; by leaving the room, by turning their head, flipping over the page or simply ignoring them (and thus are lost to the message). NHS campaigns designed to get people to stop smoking are good examples. There’s also a good argument (and I can back this up from anecdotal research) that people are bored of shock-horror and simply glaze over. After all, we see worse images on the news, let alone on the silver screen…

So how to go forward from here – obviously not everything can involve little fluffy ducklings and lambs leaping.

One way is to explore cognitive consonance and its relationship to the audience. Good market research should tell you who your consumers are, and this should enable a consonant campaign to at least be investigated. See what it is that makes your consumer tick, and then position the campaign to bolster this self-perception.

In other words, your consumer needs your product because it fits into not only their lifestyle, but it’s a product which reinforces their own self-perception, image or values (this was explored somewhat with Embrace Life which played on family values rather than more traditional approaches).

There are very few campaigns at the moment which explore cognitive consonance (although the Tories are trying). Look at the political advertising sphere – none of the main three parties are telling you that they understand you (the voter), that they want to make life better for you. They’re simply telling you that life will be worse under the other lot, thereby creating dissonance and actually drawing more attention to the policies of the other parties as the voter clicks through to find out just why life would be worse…

An alternative viewpoint would be to suggest the people are tired of being sick and tired (to paraphrase Anastasia for a moment). There’s a lot to be worried about at the moment, and heaping more on top isn’t going to help. More carrot and less stick then.

Even better than cognitive consonance would be to get people to think about the messages they’re being bombarded with (cognitive engagement) and to develop some form of goal oriantation. Fear adverts normally have a pretty instantaneous reaction, or at least one that grows with each viewing. But they don’t all make you think and process the arguments for yourself, nor will they neccessarily introduce a defined goal (if you take the stop smoking adverts with the fish hooks, perhaps the only goal oriantation is ‘I don’t want to die’. Well, none of us do particularly).

If you can get someone’s brain working, churning over the message behind your campaign and coming to a conclusion (the one that you want) for themselves, then the retention is likely to be much higher than instant impact ads.

Of course, that’s one of the most difficult things to do, especially when people want instant activation. But difficult is good to do and marketeers shouldn’t be scared of it.

For the time being, I think that fear will stay in marketing – although perhaps not for long. The audience is changing and with the advent of social media, talking points are more important than ever for brand interaction. Are people going to talk about something which makes them feel sick and turn away from the screen, other to lambast it? Or are they going to talk about something which made them feel good about themselves or made them think?

Comment below to share your thoughts and get this debate running…

(If some of this sounds familiar, I’ve returned to a topic I started to explore in an earlier blog post. In between that post and this, I’ve been able to to a lot of thinking and reading up. It’s no wonder I’m going grey…)


2 thoughts on “The use of fear

  1. Great question. In politics I’d say compromise is best. Even in WW2 as much as the Germans surrendered unconditionally, it was still an agreement. We didn’t put them and the Japanese under our thumb post agreement. The Russians on the other hand did use fear and look where it got them. Push-back.

    I think there is also push back in marketing when the fear is over-blown. Over hyping kicks in doubt and resistance. There is an unwritten limit.

    In marketing products fear can be a common AND successful tactic. Take deodorants. NOT taking them means you will alienate people around you because you might smell. Not using compact fluorescent bulbs will result in harming the planet. Fear is used to sell everything from child car seats to career planning. Our insecurities are exploited to great reward worldwide.

    Without a little fear, people will either ignore the message. Fear is used to motivate a reaction. A negotiated reaction is pretty rare. Even the “limited time offer” is motivated by the fear you will miss out.

    The only danger I “Fear” is when logic is taken out of the equation and people react blindly. As much as I think having a conserving mentality makes sense for the planet much of the global warming argument is suspect, so I’m a little skeptical. The simply comment that it’s the end of us if we don’t do something tells me that the big money people have taken the helm. As wealthy as Al Gore is, he isn’t speaking for free on this issue. Fear makes him big bucks. Bill Clinton has also seen the ‘green’ on this one.

    Fear is an awesome motivator. We all use it to our benefit.

    I found this blog link in Linkedin.

  2. Hi Ed

    Thanks for the comment – really interesting reading. I certainly agree about deodorants (although it’s interesting how Lynx advertise, for example).

    Do you think then that the use of fear should be proportional to the risks associated with not taking the appropriate action/buying the appropriate product?

    For example, I don’t think that genuine fear could be leveraged to sell Lynx (except with the use of humour), but fear is one of the biggest ‘sellers’ for the green movement and global warming.

    Would it be a following scale (i.e. more fear the more serious the subject) or an inverse scale (fear for minor things, like buying bleach, but more positivity for saving the planet arguements)?


So - what did you think? Love it? Loathe it? Have something to add? Well, what are you waiting for?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s