Should We Feel Good about Selling Through Fear?

They’re coming to get you.

The germs, the environment, the terrorists, and the tax man. They’re all lying in wait, ready to lunge and pounce into your complacent, everyday life.

But Don’t Worry™:

There’s a handy solution for every exaggerated fear, and a fat chunk of profit for every shaky solution.

Selling through fear is nothing new. And it’s nothing inherently evil. But just like most things in life, there’s a huge scope for abuse.

Here’s how they do it:

The jab-jab-swing

There’s a common basic structure behind every attempt to sell through fear.

It goes a bit like this:

  1. There’s a risk.
  2. There are painful consequences.
  3. There’s a solution.

There’s nothing wrong with framing your message around this three-part structure. And once you start to recognise it, you’ll see it everywhere:

The problem comes when companies start to blow any (or all) of these three things way out of proportion. So let’s take a look at each of these three elements, and see where things go wrong:

Calculating the risks

How many times have you had food poisoning in your life?

I bet you could count them on the fingers of two hands.

But if the implications of this Food Standards Agency advert are true, we ought to be getting sick every time we do a bit of amateur cooking:

It’s a commendable advert that uses an inventive demonstration to send a powerful message. But they seem to have left out an important part of the risk-equation:

If it’s that easy to spread germs on the walls, the doors, and your face, shouldn’t we all be getting sick every day?

Now, I’m no scientist. But I don’t think that coming into contact with a few cells of salmonella guarantees illness every time. If that were the case, we’d probably be extinct by now.

So while they might be right about how quickly and easily dangerous germs can spread, it doesn’t feel like they’re being completely honest about how dangerous those spread germs really are.

Of course, the FSA isn’t really trying to ‘sell’ anything directly. They’re trying to improve awareness and reduce disease. Or if you want to get cynical, they’re trying to reduce the strain on the NHS’ budget while keeping as many economic drones in work for as many days of the year as possible.

But when you see something like this next advert, you really have to wonder if they’re giving us a fair assessment of the risks:

Again: I’m not a scientist.

But did this advert really suggest that using an ordinary sponge is the equivalent of wiping down your kitchen counter with a raw chicken leg?

Please. This is how you encourage entire countries to develop OCD.

Concerns are real. Risks exist. Facts are great, and statistics are even better. But if you want to drive terror into the hearts of the masses to boost your profits, at least make sure that the risks are realistic.

Presenting the consequences

We all know what happens if you mess around with raw chicken. It’s a grim condition, and it feels awful for a few days. But unless you’ve got some other worrying medical condition, the vast majority of people pull through and recover without anything serious happening to them.

Some adverts, however, go all out, showing you only the most extreme consequences that could possibly happen.

This is a warning – the next advert is graphic and shocking:

That’s some nasty imagery. And this advert was so brutal that it was restricted from being shown on TV before 9pm.

Now, I need to be careful here:

I’m not saying that wild driving isn’t dangerous. I trust other drivers about as much as I trust my guts during a bad case of food poisoning.

I look both ways when I cross a one-way street – and I watch the wheels of the waiting cars, even when I’m heading towards a little green man.

Reckless driving is a real problem. And we all know there’s a good chance you’ll have a serious accident if you drive like you’re in a high-speed pursuit.

But how often will a class of schoolkids be sat in a tight cluster in the perfect shape of the car that’s barrel-rolling towards them?

I wholeheartedly commend the intention behind this advert. And even the most die-hard horror movie fan is likely to be shocked into thinking about road safety when they watch it.

But you have to admit that these particular consequences are massively overblown. If this were an advert from a car company showing off its advanced safety features, people would be even more outraged than they already were.

Instead, it’s an advert promoting road safety: so we’re tempted to give it a free pass.

They could’ve shown this reckless driver tearing through a school zone while a couple of kids crossed the road. Or speeding round a bend and smashing head-on into a packed school bus. These are equally fatal scenarios, but they’re also believable. These consequences aren’t guaranteed – but at least they’re reasonably likely.

Of course, the makers of this ad wanted to really shake you up. It works, but you have to wonder if they went a bit too far this time.

In comparison, here’s another road safety advert from New Zealand. It’s just as chilling, but this one shows us the dangers of speeding with consequences that are far more realistic:

There’s no ‘2 Fast 2 Furious’ barrel roll. No dense assembly of cute kids at a picnic in a park. Just a single car pulling out from a junction with an innocent child sitting in the back.

And if you ask me, it’s more effective.

The conversation surrounding the first road safety advert was derailed by an analysis of its grotesque violence and excessive shock value. People were talking about whether the advert should be shown, not whether we should all slow down when we drive.

The first advert drew so much attention to itself with its graphic imagery that viewers forgot about the real message the advert was trying to send.

And of course: it was so grisly that it ended up being restricted on TV – limiting the number of people it could’ve reached with that message.

The second advert stays closer to its true message. It doesn’t distract you with the vicious slaughter of twenty younglings. Instead, it focuses on the real issues – the lack of control and reaction time when you drive too fast, and the importance of being aware of your speed before it becomes too late.

The consequences of a troubling situation are important in any sales pitch. But if you’re going to present consequences, they need to be credible.

Wheeling out the solution

Now we’re on to the real purpose of any advert: the bit that makes the bad go away.

If you’ve been wiping down your kitchen counter with a raw chicken leg, you’re probably right to be concerned about germs. So what’s a terrified parent supposed to do?

That’s easy: give in to your deepest fears and spend more money on a special product:

‘It has a special germ-killing formula other liquid soaps don’t. And it’s hardly worth getting soap on your hands if you’re not killing germs.’

That sounds reasonable. But in reality, it’s rubbish.

It’s absolutely worth getting soap on your hands if you’re not killing germs. Hundreds of scientists and medics have come together to tell us that anti-bacterial soaps are useless, and that plain soap and water is the best way to protect against illness.

But when you’ve got a borderline-neurotic fear that germs will permanently maim your precious offspring, any soap that boasts special protective properties is an anaesthetic to your anxiety.

Your soap might kill 99.9% of germs, and I’m happy to believe that’s true. But that’s just irrelevant overkill – don’t pretend that our kids are any safer with your soap than they are with an everyday soap that’s cheaper.

Sadly, things aren’t much better in any other industry, either:

Coca-Cola’s Vitamin Water claimed that its sugary beverage could promote healthy joints and reduce the risk of eye disease – but there were no doctors giving it out in hospitals.

L’Oréal claimed that their expensive range of skincare products could provide anti-ageing benefits by targeting their customers’ genetics – whatever that means.

And Mars Petcare claimed that their particular brand of dog food would help your favourite pet to live 30% longer – a scientific revolution that should have earned a Nobel Prize.

These solutions sound fantastic (in both senses of the word). But can these advertisers honestly say that the benefits of their solutions were sincere?

So when is it OK to sell through fear?

‘Fear’ is a strong word. And you can apply to it to almost any situation where there’s a problem to be solved.

Are you afraid of disease? Buy our anti-bacterial soap and drink our Vitamin Water.

Are you afraid of becoming ugly and wrinkly? Buy our gene-boosting sci-fi skincare products.

Are you afraid of losing a loved one? Buy our youth-potion dog food and stop driving like a maniac.

It’s normal to frame the problem your product solves as a worrying situation. It’s an established formula that’s worked since the dawn of sales. But you need to keep a tight rein on the way you present that problem.

If you’re going to sell through fear, you need to have:

  • Realistic risks
  • Credible consequences
  • And a sincere solution.

Drunk drivers will probably crash at some point. That’s a realistic risk.

If they’re caught, the legal aftermath will be severe. That’s a credible consequence.

And if you never drink and drive, you’ll never cause a drink-driving accident. That’s a sincere solution.

But if you think you can make more money by pretending that germs will always get you, sickness will always kill you, and every other soap is utterly worthless?

You’re probably right: you’ll make plenty of money.

But that doesn’t mean you should feel good about it.