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Fear Based Marketing- Is it a Matter of Life or Death?

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Is Using Fear one of the Dark Sides of Marketing?

Fear is one of the most powerful emotions that can help us to take or stop an action. Marketers have been using different levels of fear to motivate consumers to purchase services or products.

Fear of old age has helped fuel the billion dollar cosmetic industry. Fear of being perceived as fat by others is what gets people going to the gym. Fear of not being able to find the person we love is what drives the online relationship and dating industry.

Fear is good. As long as it’s not abused and used to manipulate people for the sole benefit of sales.


How Listerine Became Successful Using Fear

Listerine is a great example of a product that became highly successful by using a form of fear based marketing. Listerine became a household name by scaring people with the term chronic halitosis in newspapers ads in the 1920’s. Halitosis was a rather obscure medical term that means bad breath.

What’s ironic about this particular fear based marketing campaign was that before the 1920’s it was acceptable to have bad breath in society since almost everybody had bad breath. But Listerine advertised that bad breath was a deal breaker when it came to finding romance.

Anybody that had bad breath wasn’t going to find love in their life. And that single fear that bad breath could prevent people from finding their one true love was enough to boost Listerine sales through the roof.


Fear Will Get you to Stop Bad Habits

One of the greatest advertising campaigns ever done was by Truth.com to stop teenagers from smoking. In order to do this, Truth.com knew that it couldn’t give the same messages to teenagers about how bad smoking was towards their health because, ironically, they found out that teenagers thrived on the idea of getting cancer or doing something that was death defying, and this actually lead to increase in cigarette sales. (Remember teenagers are often going through a rebellious phase against the mainstream in this phase of their life.)

To get teenagers to stop smoking, Truth posted small orange signs that stuck out in piles of dog poo that stated, “Cigarettes contain ammonia. So does dog poop.”

Not a bad way to get teens to stop smoking. Most teens may not care if they get cancer or not, but most of them sure don’t want to be thinking about smoking dog poop every time that they light up their cigarette.

The ability for this campaign to understand their target market, and to look at smoking from a different angle instead of the ones traditionally used, such as grotesque pictures of black lungs and people with holes in their throat, they chose to disgust teenagers out of smoking.


Volkwagen – When Fear Can Hit to Close to Home

Another well known brand that used fear as a marketing campaign was the Volkswagen “Safe Happens” campaign. Volkwagen Jetta had an amazing safety rating back in 2006, but listing out the different safety features and rating weren’t going to drive sales.

VW wanted to show what their car was all about, and so they created a commercials that showed a driver and passenger chatting on a daily commute. During this normal conversation, a truck comes out of no where and hits their Jetta. The air bags deploy and flash forward, you see the two men out of breath but they are both physically safe and healthy. The tagline “Safe Happens” then flashes across the screen.

The commercial is so real and so gripping that it leaves the audience with a memorable image in their head. This commercial drew some criticism for it’s too real portrayal of a driving accident, but the results of the commercial are hard to argue. There was a 17% increase in sales in the Volkswagen Jetta line as a result of the commercial and led to a second commercial about the VW Passat.

What makes this commercial so sticky to the brain is the fact that it reveals a truth about life. Accidents aren’t pretty. Crash dummies don’t sit in a car, people do. And it’s people’s safety that matter.

Fear based marketing is controversial, but when done effectively can help increase sales. Fear based marketing must always be done for the benefit of the consumer, and not only for the sake of making money and product sales. There is no denying that fear is a primary motivator for us to change our lives and our buying habits.

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Written by Vincent NG

I’m a social media marketer, particularly for Pinterest, It all started back in 2010 when Pinterest was in beta. It was the fastest independent website to get 10 million unique visitors in the U.S. This really struck a chord with me, and it was then that I knew that Pinterest was going to be a powerhouse in the world of digital and social media marketing.