Should You Use Fear as a Marketing Tool?

Recently, some marketing bloggers have advocated using fear as a marketing tool. Unlike many marketing tips that are pretty cut and dry, this one raises some significant issues:


Is It Moral to Use Fear as a Marketing Tool?


The first question that comes up about using fear as a marketing tool is whether or not it’s moral to do so. While everyone has their own moral compass, this is still an issue that’s worth discussing in general terms.
When this question is brought up to a large group, the majority of the group feels that it depends on the situation. For example, if you’re a company who sells gate latches for pools, the majority believe it’s OK to use the threat of a child drowning in a pool as part of this marketing message. The reason the majority feels this is not morally wrong is because the CDC lists “lack of supervision and barriers” as the number one factor that influences drownings. Children between 1 and 4 are also the group with the highest risk of drowning in a home pool.


On the other hand, if you asked a group what they thought of using heart attack statistics in a campaign for a run of the mill weight loss product, the majority would have an issue with this use of fear. The reason is while the statistics may be 100% accurate, using the typical weight loss product you see advertised on TV isn’t going to ensure your risk is lowered. While gate latches are a direct solution for the problem they include in their marketing scenario, the same isn’t true for this type of product.


Is Fear Marketing Effective?


While the moral question of fear marketing may seem somewhat abstract, a very concrete question is whether or not it’s effective. According to research that was done for Martin Lindstrom’s book, Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy,  the answer is yes. In a column about the book’s findings, Anna Papadopoulous explains:


“Our primal instinct as human beings is to survive; therefore, fear and sex are key. Fear relates to our survival: Do I have enough to eat? Will I have enough money when I retire? Is that product safe? Sex relates to procreation. In this respect, Lindstrom claims that political fear-based advertising is effective because it taps into our primal concerns of survival. Sex-based advertising, however, overwhelms us physically, so all we take away is the sexual part and we disregard the brand associated with it.”


Do You Want Your Company Associated with Fear Marketing?


While there is research to show that fear marketing is effective, before you start crafting any campaigns around this strategy, you need to ask yourself if you want your company associated with fear marketing. You also have to be aware of potential issues like backlash that this strategy can cause.


Although this is a decision you ultimately have to make for yourself, I think it’s worth listening to the advice given by Claude C. Hopkins in his classic book, Scientific Advertising:


“Show the bright side,the happy and attractive side, not the dark and uninviting side of things. Show beauty, not homeliness; health, not sickness.”