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.

How to Get Away with Swearing in Advertising

The world is full of bad people.

There’s war and murder happening every day, and it hasn’t been that long since the last genocide.

But despite all of this, some people like to get really miffed about swearing.

They complain about it in films, TV shows, newspapers, and adverts.

They get great works of literature banned from school libraries, and they’d rather abuse their own children with a soap sandwich than let them say a few arbitrary sounds in a certain order.

But as much as people hate it, swearing gets attention.

And advertisers love getting attention.

So what do smart marketers do to avoid the backlash and responsibility of using swearing in their ads?

That’s easy:

They make you say it instead.

Here are three shining examples of how to put filth into your customers’ minds and mouths:

Hidden in plain sight

Be honest: you didn’t expect this from Oxfam.

They’re a wholesome bunch with an admirable cause, doing what they can to fight poverty and injustice all over the world.

They’re usually staffed by kind and gentle folk – and they’re usually visited by families and cheery older people.

So when a brand like Oxfam challenges us to ‘Give a shift’ (Give a shit), it’s a mild but refreshingly rude slap to the senses.

It’s just enough to give a gentle wink to everyone who’s in on the collusion. But importantly, it’s buried deep enough below the surface that it shouldn’t cause anyone any serious offence.

How did they get away with it? Let’s start with the obvious reason:

1.    It works perfectly both ways

Whether you take it literally (by volunteering) or through its ruder alternative (caring about the cause), the ‘Give a shift’ message makes total sense.

Both possible readings work towards the same goal (getting more people involved). And that means that – unlike plenty of other implicitly rude advertising messages – it doesn’t just feel tacked on.

You don’t feel like the person who wrote it was trying to shoehorn in a rude second meaning just for a cheap effect. It feels like they’ve seen a natural similarity between two phrases relevant to their objective, and they’ve capitalised on that similarity.

It just so happens that one of those phrases is a rude one.

2.    It’s not the worst word out there

You wouldn’t say ‘shit’ in a job interview. But I’m more than happy to write it down in a professional blog post about swearing.

You’d probably use it around your parents. And when your kids are approaching adulthood, you’ll probably use it around them, too.

Sixty years ago, Oxfam might have landed themselves in trouble with a campaign like this.

But these days, you can take a 12-year-old along to the cinema for a young-adult adventure that drops a few S-bombs (which the BBFC considers ‘mild’ bad language).

3.    It’s innocent-friendly

I’ll bet their cheeky wordplay has passed over plenty of heads. Young children, pure-minded adults, and conservative literalists.

And that’s a good thing.

If you’ve created a double entendre marketing message that can be repeated by children at volume without consequence – and still get a few giggles out of the parents – you’ve hit the jackpot.

Stealthy on the page, filthy on the tongue

There’s often a disconnect between what’s written down and what we say out loud (or what we ‘say’ inside our heads when we read).

And some brave advertisers are fond of abusing this distinction.

Sometimes, the rude phonetics are subtle – like when Verizon tells us we don’t need to settle for ‘half-fast’ (half-arsed) internet speeds:

And sometimes, they can’t be missed – like when describes their ‘booking epic’ holidays:

(‘It doesn’t get any booking better than this. Look at the view – look at the booking view!’)

So what’s the problem?

Taken letter by letter, these adverts shouldn’t offend anyone. The bad language is implicit, just like our other examples.

But in practice, the use and context of these tweaked words is far too close to the foul-mouthed reality of what they’re trying to emulate.

When you take your kids to Sainsbury’s and they start screaming that they ‘don’t want any booking peas’, you’re going to be embarrassed.

And when they tell your mother-in-law that her slow-cooked stew was ‘half-fast’, you’re going to be – well, you might enjoy that one.

The problem with adverts like these (as well as the infamous ‘Sofa King Low’ and ‘Phuket, I’ll go’) is that they’re not really innocent-friendly.

Just like Oxfam’s ‘Give a shift’, the rude joke might pass over a few heads. But unlike the Oxfam example, anyone who doesn’t get the joke will be inadvertently putting filth into the ears of everyone around them.

The people who hear these phrases will think they’re hearing actual dirty words – and that means the end result is exactly the same as genuine, intentional swearing.

If you seek Amy…

We’ve all heard an ‘Oh, shit’ slip out from a teacher, a parent, or a politician.

But for the most part, there are a few words that are still so taboo that you just won’t hear them in polite discourse.

Here’s one of them that didn’t quite make it onto a 48-foot billboard:

What’s that?

No, you filthy animal, that’s just short-hand for ‘See You in the Northern Territory’.

As you’d expect, this advert caused some uproar.

Is it obscene? Sure.

Is it a cheap shock tactic designed to attract more attention than they could normally get? Probably.

Did it work? It certainly seems so.

The difficulty with judging this particular cheeky advert is that – at least in Australia and the UK – the rude word in question lives a double life on the streets.

To some, it’s considered the most offensive word in the language.

To others, it’s a playful term of endearment that’s used every day.

The idea of the word ‘shit’ appearing in a black-and-white TV show used to be unfathomable – but it’s now perfectly fine for 12-year-olds at the cinema.

So why wouldn’t we expect the same effect to trickle down to every word that was once considered too abominable to say out loud in public?


Wrong again – that’s short for ‘What’s the future?’.

As the S-bombs in kids’ films continue to multiply, they slowly chip away at our Victorian sensibilities, paving the way for more S-bombs, more F-bombs, and more MF-snakes on MF-planes.

(And eventually – but probably last of all – more See-You-in-the-NTs.)

At some point, ads like these will stop being seen as cheap shock tactics.

They’ll become just another part of having a ‘cheeky tone of voice’ – like this sublime apology from KFC last year:

One day, we won’t be shocked to see the word ‘shit’ written on a billboard. Without any asterisks, and without any deceptive wordplay.

We won’t be so easily jostled by an arrangement of letters or a particular human sound – and we won’t waste our efforts writing endless letters of complaint to the ASA, the BBFC, or the Queen.

We might all realise that swearing is fun. It’s therapeutic and dramatic, and the only reason it does any alleged harm is because we all give it the power to do so.

In other words, we might all just grow up.

And if you ask me, it’s about phuken time.