Fear marketing, is it the right approach?

In light of all of the news I’m seeing about South Dakota’s new “meth” campaign, I’m resharing this post I wrote that mentions Montana’s meth campaign.

Fear is an incredibly powerful tool. I don’t think any marketer would debate that. Where we do differ is in our opinions of the use of fear marketing and the ethics associated with it.  So what is fear marketing and is it the right approach?

Fear Marketing Definition

Depending on who you ask and what their background is, you will get various opinions on what exactly fear marketing is.  My general definition is that fear marketing is any marketing that elicits severe emotional fearful duress and drives people to act in a way to reduce that duress. In this definition, I am not including warnings, such as the black and white plain text labels on cigarette packs that say, “Surgeon General’s Warning, Smoking Causes Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy.”  Instead, when I talk about fear marketing, I’m talking about ads such as those found in the Montana Meth Project campaign. Below is one of their tamer ads. In fact, some of these ads are so disturbing that I must caution you to be prepared before you go to their site and see the rest of the ads. I know personally some of them bother me so much I will never, ever, forget them.

Is it the right approach?

When I think about whether or not fear marketing is the right approach, I usually think about three questions:

  1. Is it true? Taking a page from Rotary’s Four Way Test, fear marketing should only be used if it is the truth. This should not be used to promote a VERSION of the truth, but only actual truths. This rules out using qualifiers such as “may” or “could” or statements that you cannot prove to be true. For example, “[name the political party you don’t like here] is going to take everything from you” or “Eating chocolate may be bad for you” are not regarded as universally true and thus should not be used to justify a campaign. However, “If you try meth once, you will be hooked” is pretty much accepted as a universal truth.
  2. Is there another way that is just as effective or more effective? Fear may not always be the only tool or the most effective tool for a campaign. In fact, research has shown that sometimes presenting opportunities can cause more action than presenting threats (e.g. “Threat as a Motivator for Political Activism“). Also, fear campaigns may cause a reaction that the marketer does not want. For example, some people “freeze” or are unable to act when their fear reaches a certain point and others may just become desensitized to so many fear messages.
  3. Is it a matter of severe public health or safety? In my opinion, these are the two main reasons that a fear campaign might be the right approach. For example, if the mainland United States is going to be bombed (as in another country has the missile prepared, aimed at us, and their finger is on the launch button), then, by all means, go ahead and scare the whole country. Or, if the Food and Drug Administration finds that a new black market drug is causing people to go insane and harm other people and themselves, I’m ok with them scaring a few people. However, I intentionally put this third on my list because it absolutely has to meet the first two criteria before I think this criteria can be used as justification for a fear marketing campaign.

Clearly, a lot of the campaigns today do not follow the above rules and I think we as a marketing community and as the general public need to take a hard look at the marketing that uses fear and ask ourselves if it is the right approach. If it’s not, we need to start letting our voices be heard that the abuse of such a powerful tool is in no one’s best interest.

Doritos, brand recall, and learning science retrieval

Does this mean that: Retrieval of brand name = Better learning of the brand = More likely to buy the brand?

The new Doritos anti-ad (#LogoGoesHere) campaign features everything surrounding the brand, but never shows or says the brand name. They show the red and blue bags, talk about the flavor and what the chip looks like, etc. but never say the name.

Per Ad Age, “Doritos is the latest brand to acknowledge audience distaste for overt advertising with its latest strategy—it’s dropping its logo from its new campaign.”

Maybe.

Or maybe they hired some learning scientists.

Brand Recall

In marketing, when we talk about brand recall, we’re usually referring to a consumer recalling (unaided by the logo, etc.) the brand name. Examples:

  • “Can you get us some chips for the party?” “What kind?” “Uh, how about some tortilla chips and some Doritos.”
  • “You know, those triangle chips that have a nacho flavor.” “Doritos.
  • “Remember how we always got chips with our hamburgers at Mary’s house?” “Yep, whenever I have a hamburger now, I always want Doritos.”
  • “I need chips” (writes Doritos on shopping list).

The general idea is: If your brand is the one they recall, they are more likely to buy it.

But learning science takes it a step further.

Learning Science Retrieval

Retrieval is the process of calling up a memory, which can be a piece of information such as a brand name.

There are generally two types of retrieval

  1. Recognition – Where we “recognize” the information as familiar or the information that we were looking for.
  2. Recall – Unaided, we bring up the memory of the information.

As an example, on a test, a multiple-choice question is recognition

Question 1: Nicole’s last name is:

a) Finkel

b) Finbruner

c) Finkbeiner

d) Fink

(correct answer: c)

With recall, a retrieval question is usually a free form response. Example:

Question 1: What is Nicole’s last name?

(blank space where the user would manually write or type “Finkbeiner”)

Studies have shown that retrieval increases retention of the content (increased learning).

Putting it all together

The Doritos anti-ad (#LogoGoesHere) campaign could be considered a form of retrieval. Which leads to an interesting question:

If Brand recall = Higher sales

and

If retrieval = Increased learning

Does this mean that: Retrieval of brand name = Better learning of the brand = More likely to buy the brand?

Hopefully, Doritos or someone with money and time is studying this.  This could have interesting long-term impacts on marketing and advertising.

 

 

 

Pandora Tide ads, the new “Pizza Guy” advertising

The Tide ads on Pandora are annoying. Is this costing Pandora revenue?

If you’ve used Pandora music streaming anytime in the past few years, you’ve heard the Tide Laundry detergent ads. These are by far some of the most annoying commercials I’ve ever heard in my life.

And, they reminded me of a scene from a fun movie in the 1990’s, City Slickers and the “Pizza Guy” radio advertising scene.

[manager plays annoying Pizza Guy radio ad]

Mitch: “So?”

Manager: “So? So, it’s stupid. It’s annoying. It makes people change the station.”

Mitch: “I didn’t write it.”

Manager: “But you bought it, you put it on the air three times a night during drive time. People are having accidents.”

“It makes people change the station” is the key part of this scene. Advertising on a particular radio station is valued based on the number of people listening. In short:

Less people listening to your radio station = less you can charge for your ads = less revenue (since you have a limited window to run ads).

So the “Pizza Guy” annoying radio advertisement that makes people change the station means less revenue.

Pandora’s model is a little different, but not much. Listeners have a few options to cope with these ads:

  1. Turn-off Pandora
  2. Switch to another music streaming service such as Spotify or Apple Music
  3. Pay for a subscription to listen to Pandora ad-free
  4. Learn to ignore the ads

Only two of these are good for Pandora. And, like the City Slickers “Pizza Guy” advertisement, it’d be interesting to see if Pandora is losing enough listeners due to these ads that it will hurt their long-time revenue and sustainability of their company. My guess is these ads are doing damage.

It’s also interesting to look at this from Tide’s perspective. Do these annoying ads turn people off of their product? Or does it increase brand recall? Or is this a case of “any mention of our product is good” thinking? Perhaps people talking about it and blogging about it is just the thing they want.

 

Coors Light ad has more nods to women than just the “being done wearing a bra” part

A friend of mine recently co-founded the Alewives Podcast to celebrate “beer, history, beer history, and the women who make them” and that’s got me thinking a lot about beer marketing and advertising.

The Coors Light “The Official Beer of Being Done Wearing a Bra” advertisement above stands out, as many have commented, because it’s a far cry from the usual “beaches and bikinis” portrayal of women we often see in mass-produced beer advertising.

But while everyone is focused on the end, where she takes her bra off as a relaxing (and non-sexual) gesture, I noticed two things earlier in the advertisement that are also strong signals to women:

  • :06 mark: As she takes off her shoes, we see a bandaid. If you’re not familiar with the “heel bandaid” they are worn because the backs of some shoes rub on your actual heel and it causes pain and blisters. It’s very common with high heels and thus something many women can relate to. Side note: If you can relate to this, heel grips are a beautiful thing.
  • :03 mark: I could be wrong about this one since we don’t see a dog later in the ad, but the painting of the dog on the wall looks like it came from a “Paint Your Pet party” to me. These parties are where people bring their own food and drinks and take a class where they learn to paint. They tend to be especially popular with women.

And there are a couple of subtleties when she opens the fridge (:10 mark) that are worth noting:

  • There is a bottle of white wine that she reaches past to get to the Coors Light beer, subtly offering a contrast to the traditional expectations that women reach for wine to relax.
  • The fridge has fruit juice, salads, some sort of takeout, and an apple in it. While I’d argue fruit juice isn’t healthy, the foods we associate with health around the Coors Light cans in the fridge gives the beer an association effect of healthiness.

While I recognize there have been some criticisms of the ad, I think it’s a well thought out, well-executed advertisement by Coors Light and Leo Burnett.

How politicians, celebrities, and brands get you to “like” them

A paper sign on a lamp post that says "Be the first of your friends to like this post" below it has the facebook thumb's up icon so people can tear one off.
“Like This Post” by Bernard Goldbach is licensed under CC BY 2.0

During a recent online discussion, a colleague posed a question about the Persuasion Principle of Liking (Robert Cialdini). Most of the examples in literature are at an individual scale, meant for 1:1 interaction. He was interested in how this does or could scale.

For my contribution to the discussion, I decided to focus on politicians, celebrities, and brands and how they utilize the Principle of Liking to encourage the general public or their target markets to “like” them at scale.

Similarities

The first example of this that came to mind is how people will say “They talk like me,” or “They tell it like it is,” (which, in my opinion, actually means “this person has the same opinions as me”) about why they like particular politicians. If you’re curious about this and don’t mind a very dense read, I recommend The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, as he breaks down the moral structures and topics (which then you could deuce wording and phrases) that appeal to different subsets of the public.

Another way I think brands, celebrities, and politicians foster similarity this is through origin stories. A brand for a protein bar will tell you the story of how it all started with an avid fitness person in their kitchen who wanted a better option than the ones currently on the market. Or a politician or celebrity will tell the story of their humble beginnings. An underrated example of this, in my opinion, is Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block” song, which highlights her “regular” upbringing.

Brands also highlight similarity by featuring people who look like you in ads. When I was looking for a new car a few years ago, I was shocked that I subconsciously added the Cadillac brand to my online search, as I’ve always associated Cadillac with “my grandmother drove one of those.” But when I thought about it, I’d seen several Cadillac ads recently where they showed women who looked like me owning and driving them. While I’m yet to find proof, I’m also convinced Cadillac may have had a marketing agreement with Carrie Underwood to create her song “Two Black Cadillacs” to market to younger women.

Compliments

Politicians and performers on stage tend to give these compliments outright. I’ve come to dread the part of concerts where they shout “We love you New Orleans!” because I’m sure they say that in every city. And I wonder if it’s written somewhere where they can see it so they don’t say the wrong name, but I digress….

Politicians tend to say things like “Detroit, you are amazing. You’ve had a tough few years, but you are coming back because you all are incredible.” Arguably, the more the politician or celebrity genuinely believes this, the more genuine it’ll come across.

Brands are usually more subtle. The one that immediately comes to mind is the Dove campaign for real beauty ads. They are celebrating women’s bodies and saying “You are beautiful no matter your size, shape, stretch marks, etc.” Although it’s worth noting that their parent company also owns Axe body spray, which as a brand has a vastly different commentary on women and beauty.

Cooperation

I joke that you could channel-surf on TV by which commercials are on (Subway ads = Simpsons, Family Guy, or American Dad mostly). I think that’s especially true on Sunday mornings during the intellectual news and financial market commentary. The ads during these times are highly environmental and cooperative-focused. They tend to have a theme around, “We’re working with you to protect and sustain our environment” and are run by oil companies and the like.

While I could also argue it’s reciprocity, Chick-Fil-a’s marketing strategy of sponsoring a tremendous amount of community events, in my opinion, is a great example of, “We’re a part of this community cooperating with you to make it a better place” cooperation.

Ethics consideration

With scale, you cross an ethical line if you lead the person to believe there is a direct or personal connection when there isn’t. I get emails that have my name in the subject area and are addressed to me, but I realize that it’s a form letter. But if they sent an automated email that made me think a particular person (such as a politician or celebrity) themselves wrote to me when they didn’t and/or made me think the message was sent to just me when it wasn’t, I think that’s unethical. And, it risks ruining the relationship of the person discovers it.

Verizon, unlimited data during Hurricane Barry, and increasing brand loyalty

Reading a book at my husband’s hunting camp, my phone dings with a new text message. Not surprising right now, we live in New Orleans and a lot of very caring people are checking on us to make sure we left due to Hurrican Barry.

“Oh, wow. That’s amazing,” I say and show my husband the text.

It’s from Verizon Wireless, our cell phone carrier, letting us know that we have unlimited domestic talk, text, and data for the next few days because of Hurricane Barry.

Text message from Verizon Wireless that says "Verizon Msg: We've got your back, we've got your usage. To help you during this challenging time, active customers in the affected areas will received unlimited domestic talk, text and data from 7/12-7/12. For more details visit vzw.com/featured/relief.

This message is also timely. Just the day before, we were researching libraries and other places nearby that had wifi access and then wondering if we’d be able to get to those places if need be.  It’s a small worry, but small worries can add up.

So, Verizon Wireless, thank you.  As my husband commented, you just earned even more brand loyalty from us.

Marketer vs. high-pressure sales home remodeling contractor

Obviously I had way too much fun analyzing their sales pitch.  Let’s break down what they did.

What we thought was going to be a simple task of having a contractor come over to our house and provide us with a quote for remodeling our bathroom turned into a two-hour high-pressure sales pitch from two salespeople, including a slide deck, videos, and a lot of sales tactics.

After they left, my husband started laughing and said, “I want to see your notebook.” “Why?,” I asked. “Because I saw your face crack into a smile and furious writing, and I know you.” Dang, I guess I’m not as sneaky as I thought.

So, without further adieu, here’s my notebook:

The notebook shows general notes about the bath remodel but also includes the following comments: - Price anchoring. “The average bath remodel costs.” - Priming “What’s important to you in a company you work with?” - Awards/endorsements = external affirmation - They just did the “I need to get something from my car, can I let myself back in?” Trick!!! “Building trust” - Affirmation & Good vs. bad guy. “Now Scott, I can see their point…” - Price anchoring again! Except the quote for us is above average (whoops!) - “We’re so busy, if we don’t have to come back out again before you say yes” discount - Social norms “Most people go with paying this way.” - Small yes to try to move to bigger yes “I know you said you’d have to think about it, but if you were going to move forward, which of these three payment options would you pick?” Really threw them off when we still wouldn’t answer.
My notes (with some modifications for privacy reasons) from listening to a sales pitch from a home remodeling contractor.

Obviously I had way too much fun analyzing their sales pitch.  Let’s break down what they did.

Sales prompts

Not listed on my notes, but one of the salespeople had a printed-out sales prompt form. It was multiple sheets, where he filled in our responses to questions like “What’s important to you in a company you work with?” At one point, he set it down next to me, and I was a little too obvious in looking at it, so he picked it up and moved it. Bummer.

Price anchoring

Near the beginning and right before they gave us the quote for our bathroom at the end, they showed us the “national average” price for a bathroom remodel.

This is a technique called price anchoring, where consumers tend to over-rely on the first price they hear or see. In most cases, this is used to make someone think they are getting an amazing deal. A good example of this is furniture stores, where they show the “list price” and then a much lower price they are asking, which makes the price they are asking seem like a great deal.

In this case though, price anchoring was a fail because their quote for us came in up to 2-3% higher than the national average. I can’t think of any reason they’d do this intentionally, so I’m pretty sure this was a mistake.

Priming

The sales presentation began with the question, “What’s important to you in a company you work with?”.  This is called priming, getting the customer to say who they are and/or what they value, then showing them why they should buy from you related to who they said they are or what their values are.

My personal annoyance with priming is when a sales person doesn’t change their presentation to the priming points and instead just brings them back up at the end, which is what these two salespeople did (more on this later). To add insult to injury, they did their priming in the most obvious way, “Now let’s look back at what you said you valued” instead of being more subtle about it.

Awards/endorsements

One of the salespeople also showed us a list of their awards they’ve received. This technique is most closely related to the association principle, where someone is attempting to associate their brand or themselves with something of higher value.

The majority of their awards were fluff, primarily a lot of “fastest growing company” awards which don’t really tell the consumer anything, but sound impressive. It’s easy to get “fastest growing” awards when you are just starting out. For example, if you go from one to four employees in a year, that’s a 300% increase.

The list also backfired with us because one of the awards was for being the top seller of a particular product for many years in a row. So we knew later on in the sales pitch they were going to push that product.

Small displays of trust

One technique commonly used by high-pressure sales people is for the salesperson to create a situation where you have to demonstrate a small amount of trust toward them. Why? Because this primes you to trust them in bigger ways later on.

I’ve read about the “Can I let myself back in?” tactic so many times and was actually quite excited to see it live because it’s always struck me as very over-the-top. Here’s how it works:

The salesperson…

  1. “Forgets” something in their car.
  2. Tells the customer that they need to go get it from their car.
  3. Asks the customer if they can let themselves back in. Bonus points if it requires the client having to give the salesperson the key to their home to let themselves back in.

Step 3 is where the customer shows trust, by agreeing to let the person let themselves back in.

To be fair, in this case, the guy came back with a large case of samples. If he’d brought this in from the start, that probably would have turned a lot of people off, so I could argue waiting was a good thing. But having seen his sales prompt sheet and the rest of their presentation, I’m convinced this was intentional.

Affirmation (good vs. bad guy)

At one point, I started to entertain myself by bringing up legitimate counterpoints to their sales pitch. And so did my husband. To counter us, the second salesperson said “Now Scott, I can see their point, if that’s not important to them and if that’s their goal…”

Oh that’s good.

The second salesperson was building trust by affirming us and making it seem like he’s on our side. He then argued for us to the first salesperson, but in a backhanded way.  Non-academics and young people commonly refer to this as negging.

Social norms

After price anchoring and showing us our quotes, they moved to three different payment plan options. During this part, they said something to the effect of “now most people go with this one,” which is a social norms argument. Essentially, social norms in this context means you’ll go along with what others are doing because you assume that the majority of people doing something means it’s the right approach.

While it may be true that most people do put home improvement projects on credit, the option “most people” choose is also the one that added 7% interest fees to the total for the project, so it was in their financial best interest to push this one.

Small yes to bigger yes

Similar to building trust and priming, a common high-pressure sales tactic is to get you to say yes to small things and thus walk you into saying yes to bigger things. One of the ways the salespeople did this was after presenting the payment options.

They asked us what we thought after presenting the price and payment options in a variety of ways. We gave very noncommittal answers each time, mostly “We’ll have to think about it.” So they moved to a small yes, by asking “…but if you had to move forward, which of these three payment options would you pick?” The goal was to get us to say which one of those we would pick (small yes) and then move to the final close.

But we didn’t. We just kept saying “We’ll have to think about it.” At this point, I think we genuinely threw them off their programming; they seemed to not know what to do. They ended up giving up and leaving. I “helped” them make this decision by standing up from the table as if to say “Ok, enough.”

They broke the golden rule…

If you’re trying to convince someone of something, start by knowing your target market. As you’ve probably guessed by now, a high-pressure sales tactic was the wrong approach to take with us. And it had the opposite of the intended effect; it made us not trust them.

This is the issue with such pre-prescribed sales pitches; it doesn’t allow the person presenting the material flexibility to tailor it to the target market. Had they taken time to get to know us better at the beginning and had they been able to modify their approach with us based on the cues we were giving, they may have been able to make the sale or at least be considered.

Outtake

Salesperson to my husband: Don’t you want to be excited every time you walk into your bathroom?

Husband: I don’t get excited about bathrooms.