Fear marketing, is it the right approach?

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.

3 thoughts on “Fear marketing, is it the right approach?”

  1. Hi Nicole

    I comepletely agree with some of what you have said about using fear as a motivator. I write my own blog on fear marketing and have come across many of the things you talk about here.

    My issue is whether it is ethical to use it under any circumstances. You said that if “the country is going to be bombed then “go ahead and scare the whole country”, this smacks of what you deemed at the beginning not to be fear marketing though and more like the stickers on cigarette packets, which again is another form of truth and so forfils point 1 above.

    I think the people that most companies are selling to are adults and whether it is the truth or not (most truths can be easily fabricated and very hard to distinguish) fear marketing is a highly unethical form of marketing that forces a response rather than letting a person decide.

    You can read more on my blog.



  2. You make a great point; there’s definitely a question of ethics any time fear is used – and for that variety of reasons that you cited.

    I checked out the Montana Meth Project site and like so many anti-drug campaigns it’s ALL fear: http://www.montanameth.org/

    The “War on Drugs” in general is a superb example of the dismal failure of Fear Marketing to produce the intended outcome (and WORSE, to harden public opinion AGAINST considering other strategies that have proven to be more effective).

    It’s unfortunate that there’s no easy way to incorporate a consideration of ethics into mass communication efforts.

  3. Hi, I clicked over here from Derek’s site (I’m working on writing our social media policy at The Citadel in SC and reading up on his insightful posts); thank you for posting this. It made me pause and ponder the ethics of such marketing as well.

    I know personally I am certainly in the “freeze” camp; I have children, so my mind immediately goes down a dark tunnel when fear tactics are used like those in the Meth Project videos. It seems that’s all I can do from that point on is dwell on the hypothetical disasters involving them after watching / reading something designed to alarm.

    I’m betting that this is probably more common than not for most people; everyone is so focused on his own family and her own personal situation that fear marketing plummets us into introspection rather than toward ‘action,’ perhaps achieving the opposite of the goal after all.

    Thanks again for this. Merry Christmas!

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