Fear Sells, and We're All Buying: How Marketers Channel Dark Forces to Rake in Billions
Like any good con, advertising relies on sleight of hand. There’s an art to convincing an increasingly ad-weary and debt-saddled American public that it should spend money on products it neither needs nor can afford, and as it turns out, that art is mostly built on fear. If you cannot remember the last time you were essentially terrified into buying something, that’s only because savvy advertisers have gotten incredibly good at their jobs. Evidence of fear’s efficacy in advertising is everywhere, from off-road vehicles that never leave the streets of the Upper East Side to anti-perspirants that do nothing to help wearers find their soulmates. Studies confirm that the “interest [in] and persuasiveness of” ads is increased by fear, which explains why “fear appeals are one of the most frequently used motivators” for getting people to respond to marketing of every sort. From snake oil salesmen to digital marketers, advertisers have long preyed on our insecurities to sell us products that don’t so much solve our problems as they do allay our darkest fears.
They do this because it works, and because fear is an endlessly adaptable tool. As Gavin de Becker writes in The Gift of Fear, “What you think you fear is rarely what you fear – it’s what you link to fear.” So whereas fear once served as a survival instinct – the emotion that saved us from real life saber-toothed cats and giant raptors – modern Americans’ fears of mortality have taken the form of imagined predators from Communists to immigrants to street gangs to ISIS. We fear being friendless, loveless, invisible, socially ostracized and – perhaps most obviously – alone. Humiliation, science now tells us, is a soul-crushing feeling we’d do anything to avoid. With so many subconscious fears plaguing us, it’s unsurprising that studies find people “better remember and more frequently recall ads that portray fear than they do warm or upbeat ads or ads with no emotional content.” We are the products of a culture that teaches us to fear an endless list of things that advertisers can, and absolutely do, use against us. The oft-repeated phrase that sex sells turns out to be wrong after a little scientific investigation. Sex just gets your attention. Fear actually moves units.
And not only do marketers play on our unconscious anxieties, they help artificially manufacture them, as well. Listerine’s 1920s ads turned bad breath from a fairly common minor flaw into halitosis, a condition that made you into a social pariah, sexless and alone. (Consumers were rendered so effectively insecure that Listerine’s sales rose “from $115,000 to more than $8 million” in just seven years.) In the 1930s, Lysol – a product we now know should be kept as far from genitalia as possible – was marketed as a douche (and more covertly, as feminine birth control), in ads that basically told women no one would ever love them with their awful natural-smelling vaginas. Body odor wasn’t a thing until the inventor of a deodorant called Odorono (Odor? Oh no!) launched a marketing campaign that made everyone suddenly embarrassed about sweating. And until the 1970s, people were actually just fine with having genital herpes, thinking outbreaks were just a cold sore down there. Until a drug company’s ad campaign successfully turned the virus into the highly stigmatized disease it is today.
After 9/11, fear became an even more potent force in every aspect of American culture, and advertising was no exception. Perhaps no product offers a more prime example than the Hummer. Less a car than a 10,000 pound manifestation of the country’s creeping culture of anxiety, Hummer sales just after the WTC attacks offer a glimpse into the paranoid, traumatized and irrational state of the American psyche in those years. Between 2002 and 2003, the number of Hummers sold in the U.S. nearly doubled, which means tens of thousands of Americans were seeking safety in a vehicle known for being prone to rollover, offering terrible visibility, and requiring a frightening amount of braking distance. (Buying a Hummer was also tantamount to announcing that you didn’t give a shit about anyone else’s safety or, at 8 to 10 miles to the gallon, the planet.) "I usually say, If you put a machine gun on top of them, you will sell them better,'" half-jokes Clotaire Rapaille, the marketing consultant who advised manufacturer General Motors on the Hummer ad campaign. "[A Hummer] says if you want to fight, I can fight. But you will die.”
And so it goes in a country where fear – despite the improbability of being killed by terrorists and falling violent crime rates – continues to rise. More recently, manufacturers of hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps have taken advantage of pervasive fears of viruses such as SARS and Swine flu to market the notion that their products keep people safer than soap from ubiquitous diseases and toxins. (One Purell ad juxtaposes the friendly face of a dog with copy that reads, ominously, “Your best friend is actually your worst nightmare.”) In 2010, Kellogg’s tried to jump on the disease-fearing bandwagon with a new marketing campaign that claimed Rice Krispies “now helps support your child’s immunity” – a claim the Federal Trade Commission made them stop using. Since then, not only has the CDC shown than the use of “antibacterial” products offers “no added health benefit” over regular soap, the FDA now warns that they may actually cause harm. And yet, the industry is booming.
Then there’s “shockvertising,” an advertising strategy mostly employed in public service announcements and by nonprofits. Though these ads generally have goals driven less by profit than public health, they often employ the most graphic and grotesque imagery in pushing the fear envelope. Examples include anti-smoking ads featuring real ex-smokers displaying the ravages of throat cancer and Buerger’s disease, commercials that show the awful consequences of texting while driving, ads that graphically exhibit the tolls of methamphetamine use, and safer sex/anti-AIDS ads that depict bodies, real and fictitious, wasting from the disease. Here again, fear is used in these ads for one simple reason: because it works. In 2012, the CDC reported that one week of scary anti-smoking ads prompted 50,000 smokers to quit. (No word yet on how many remain non-smokers.) Interestingly, studies show people approve more of shockvertising’s extreme tactics when employed by nonprofits, and less so by for-profit companies.
In figuring out how we got here, Edward Bernays is as good a starting point as any. The nephew of Sigmund Freud and “The Father of Public Relations,” Bernays was the first to apply sociology and psychology to marketing, turning advertising into a literal mind game. Beginning his career in 1913, Bernays based his press strategies on his uncle’s theory that humans are, at core, irrational slaves to their unconscious. In his groundbreaking and highly influential 1928 book Propaganda, Bernays rhetorically asks, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?” An advisor to President Calvin Coolidge and Procter & Gamble – and basically the reason Americans eat eggs and bacon for breakfast – Bernays helped establish what’s now common wisdom in advertising: that public opinion can be molded and manipulated. To sell people stuff.
Meanwhile, his contemporary, John B. Watson, took things in a slightly more fear-focused direction. The founder of behaviorism and admirer of Pavlov and his famous experiments making dogs salivate, Watson became renowned for conditioning a baby known as “Little Albert” to be frightened of a rat, a rabbit, a dog, and eventually, anything furry (in that order). After being ousted from academia in 1920 for having an extramarital affair with his assistant, Watson got into advertising, taking the lessons learned from his experiments with him. He believed humans had only three innate traits (love, rage and, of course, fear), and decided the rest was just cultural conditioning, essentially reducing humans to a hive-mind of predictable fears, insecurities and anxieties. Armed with this knowledge, advertisers could tailor stimuli (ads) to elicit desired behavioral reactions (buying useless crap). Watson’s theories were so successful that within two years at his first advertising job, he’d made vice president. Fear appeals in advertising, as a result, made huge advances.
Psychologists were soon being retained with regularity by advertisers, and they continued to advocate for fear as a covert advertising tool. Perhaps today’s most well-known example is the aforementioned Clotaire Rapaille, a French-born Jungian child psychologist-cum-marketing consultant who counts 50 of the Fortune 100 as clients. Rapaille believes that the “reptilian brain” – the most primitive, primal part of our brains that drives reproduction and survival – decides what we buy. Americans, who Rapaille suggests are more “reptilian” than other cultures (the German and French are less impulsive and “adolescent,” he believes), respond strongly to ads that target their most primal emotions, and fear is way up there. Keith Bradsher, author of the book High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV, writes that Rapaille’s marketing is grounded in the idea that Americans are “becoming frighteningly atavistic and obsessed with crime.” He quotes Rapaille as saying that we are “going back to medieval times,” a devolution that is apparent “in that we live in ghettos with gates and private armies.” It makes sense, then, that we might – just as an example – drive around in military war vehicles repurposed as suburban war fetish objects.
And so, psychology continues to inform marketing. But perhaps no innovation is more brain-probing, not to mention troubling, than neuromarketing. No longer content to apply long-held theories on the brain to their work, advertisers are now looking directly into consumer brains themselves, and measuring physiological responses to ads to find out how best to sell to you. Wikipedia notes that neuromarketing involves “functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in activity in parts of the brain, electroencephalography (EEG) and Steady state topography (SST) to measure activity in specific regional spectra of the brain response, and/or sensors to measure changes in one's physiological state, also known as biometrics, including heart rate and respiratory rate, [and] galvanic skin response.” Martin Lindstrom, marketing consultant and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, compiled three years of findings from 2,000 human subjects into the most comprehensive look at neuromarketing data thus far. Among his most astounding findings? Recognizable logos stimulated the same regions of the brain in brand adherents as did religious iconography in devout Christians. That is to say, we literally worship our favorite brands.
It’s these kinds of revelations that keep corporate ad budgets rising, because what brand doesn’t want you to consider their products your personal god? It helps explain why in 2013, the top 1,000 U.S. corporate brands made cuts to every aspect of their budgets except advertising, where they increased spending by 3.3 percent. That same year, the advertising spending of the top 100 U.S. advertisers rose to $108.6 billion, the most money spent on advertising since 2007, before recessionary belt-tightening. In 2014, worldwide ad spending hit $559 billion, with the U.S. taking top “honors” (China, Japan, Germany and the UK followed). This year, total ad spending is predicted to hit almost $600 billion. U.S. corporations will again take the number one slot, spending a projected $190 billion on keeping you needy and afraid.
Fear, uncertainty, and doubt or FUD. That’s the industry parlance for marketing efforts to sow seeds of confusion and discomfort about a competitor’s products. Often, these claims bend and tug at the truth, creating anxieties meant to divert consumers in another buying direction – preferably, toward your own products. It’s yet another example of how the myriad flavors of fear help determine our spending habits. After 9/11, researchers find, “Americans bought homes and cars in record quantities.” And when we are reminded by advertisers that death looms, studies show, we’re motivated to buy their products. There are lots of theories about why, but the most obvious seems also to be the most likely: We want and need things to fear, because fear is invigorating (see also: horror movies). And yet, we need to control that discomfort by purchasing items that help put us at ease. It’s a bit like a controlled explosion – and explains why, again and again, we take the bait. There is no fear so unsettling that a product cannot quell it. At least, until the ad world develops a new fear – and a new product – to take its place.