At a time when consumer trust is in diminishing supply, ‘fear marketing’ has reached a new nadir, writes Suzy Bashford.
As human beings we are morbidly fascinated by death. We slow down on the motorway to gawp at the crumpled, blood-spattered mess of a car accident. When we read about a celebrity committing suicide in the news, we want to know how they did it.
Many of the most popular TV shows are murder mysteries in which characters have died in gruesome circumstances. The reason for this? We are hard-wired to be fearful. It’s a survival mechanism, with our brains constantly scanning the landscape around us for potential threats to our safety, filing all this information away and searing it into our memories so we can fight or flee if we come across a similar situation in the future.
In the time of ‘the caveman’, threats came in the form of sabre-toothed tigers and a lack of food and water. Today, they are more likely to be recession, redundancy and cancer.
Regardless of whether the threat is physical or psychological, however, the physiological effect on our bodies is the same: responses include a racing pulse, sweating, heightened senses and a tightening of the body.
With all the uncertainty in the modern world – economic and environmental, for example – some experts argue that we are living in the grip of a new age of anxiety, fuelled by our always-on, social- media-driven digital culture. One such expert is Sheila Keegan, who has just published a book entitled The Psychology of Fear in Organisations.
"We know an awful lot more about the threats nowadays, and we know about them so much faster because fear is so contagious," she says. "We know about a plane going down within an hour, for instance.
Fear is stirred up and spreads immediately via social media and everybody panics. We’re moving in the direction of being anxious and feeling out of control all the time." Fear has long provided the bedrock of political marketing.
UKIP’s exploitation of fear about the immigration issue is one recent example. While some voters are shocked by the right-wing party’s soaring popularity in recent years, it can be explained quite simply: the gloomy vision UKIP conjures up of what life will be like if we don’t take a hard line on immigration taps into a primal human urge to protect our own and prioritise our security.
UKIP message taps into humans’ urge to protect our own and prioritise our security
While in fear mode, our focus narrows, homing in on the threat, so it becomes all-consuming and we fail to see a wider, more balanced perspective.
Many other politicians duck the issue because it is so sensitive, thereby giving UKIP’s voice more power and airtime.
People vote on the fear of change
Sam Delaney, political commentator and author of Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising, believes fear will continue to be the main strategy employed in the forthcoming election.
It may seem like a blunt tool, but it’s incredibly effective. "I believe the way for a party in Labour’s position to go is to attack the government mercilessly and relentlessly," he says.
"People vote on the fear of change. To attack, the best weapon you have is to paint a picture of what life might be like if we continue to have this government. This has always been the strongest way to play it in all political campaigns, stretching back years.
You could say in the current climate – where certainties are all crumbling away and jobs and lives are so much less secure – that fear will always be the number-one [vote-influencing] factor."
Chris Rogers, head of public relations at PR firm The Whitehouse Consultancy, tends to agree that fear has made for the most memorable political messages in the past. However, he points out that it wasn’t advertising alone that made an impact through fear-mongering – the newspapers once held huge political sway, too.
He cites the famous example of The Sun’s 1992 headline: "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights." It’s not clear how much influence The Sun actually had on the Conservatives’ subsequent shock victory, but the newspaper claimed its role was decisive, with the follow-up headline "It’s The Sun wot won it".
In public-affairs circles, Rogers says this kind of line is referred to as "the grenade approach". While the newspapers may have lost much power with their dwindling circulations, this approach is still preferred as a PR and ad strategy.
"The problem with this kind of big, scary headline," says Rogers, "is that we become mired in a negative debate. It’s all about why the other side is ‘bad’, as opposed to talking up the merits of your position. It’s happening in this election now – take the NHS.
Labour has been saying the NHS can’t survive for another five years under David Cameron, with the Conservatives talking about how Labour is trying to ‘weaponise’ the NHS.
There’s a big risk that these soundbite, headline-grabbers dominate the discussion." Rogers sounds somewhat frustratedly resigned to the fact that fear must continue to be a cornerstone of political marketing.
Others, like marketing agency Wunderman’s chief strategy officer, Richard Dunn, argue that fear tactics will become increasingly ineffective as the real political battleground moves online, where people expect more than a catchy-sounding slogan with no substance.
Dunn predicts more digital platforms that promote transparency and "provide a smarter way to break down complex arguments".
Humans have a basic fear of being ostracised. Tribes give you a sense of security, in the way that a family gives you support and affords you protection
"The popularity of sites like isidewith.com, which helps people find the party that cares about the same things, is a good example of using the power of digital to constructively address people’s concerns," he adds.
James Kirkham, global head, social and mobile, at Leo Burnett and co-founder of Holler, concurs, noting that fears can be allayed further by using technology that feels more like voters are interacting with a person, rather than a robot.
"Words on a screen [can be] far more bewildering than a human face, so any innovations that immediately connect people, add a familiar face, warmth or humanity are going to help."
He suggests that politicians (and brands) should consider live video-messaging or Q&A sessions in their communications. Keegan, however, believes there is still scope for both brands and politicians to use fear in a more sophisticated way. They can do this by tapping into another, associated primal urge that soothes fear: the longing to belong. As she explains in her book, humans are pack animals and so primed to "fit in", thriving more in life when they bond with others:
"Humans have a basic fear of being ostracised. Tribes give you a sense of security, in the way that a family gives you support and affords you protection," she says.
"It could be any sort of tribe: a football club, or a political party. We like to think we’ve lost all those primal drivers, which go back millions of years, but they still shape our behaviour. We like to delude ourselves that we’re unique, but we like to be unique in a group. Very few people can exist without connections to other people."
This need to belong is becoming stronger in the face of an insecure job market, fickle Facebook friendships, increased social isolation (especially among the elderly), decreased community spirit and environmental uncertainties.
"We’re looking for things that are solid, that can define who we are in relation to the fluid environment in which we live. We all need to hang on to a sense of security in the world, of being able to predict what’s going to happen in some parts of our lives," adds Keegan.
There is a particular opportunity for premium brands on this tribal front, because, according to Keegan, humans are "programmed to want to be in the upper group, rather than the lower group".
Savvy brands are those that persuade the consumer that brandishing their badge will strike that perfect balance between being an individual and being part of the in-crowd, while giving them a hook to hang their identity on.
The conformity complex
The Gina Ford brand has done this successfully in the baby world, by promising mothers fearful of sleepless nights that if they follow her routine, they will not only be identified as part of a particular group, but also have a contented baby.
This two-pronged approach – of touching on the fear of ostracism, while also reassuring through the comfort of a tribe – is effective because we are not designed to live in constant fear. Our physiology simply isn’t geared for it and, like a tripping switch, if you overload the system, something has to give.
Global neuroscience practice director at market research company Millward Brown, Sarah Walker, has seen the effects of too much fear on consumers when tracking emotions on the faces of people watching ads. "There are two main dangers with fear.
If you go over the top, people might turn away and, if you’ve set up a scenario to which your brand is the solution, they might miss it. Or, they can have such a strong negative response that this can become associated with the product. In these cases people often just don’t want to think about it. That is where charities need to be careful, for example."
What Walker advises most strongly against, no matter how effective the strategy proves in the short term, is inducing so much fear that you terrify your audience to the extent of irrationality.
As a 10-year-old, the launch in 1986 of a government campaign to warn the public about the threat of AIDS (remember those tombstones emblazoned with the foreboding words "Don’t die of ignorance"?) left me petrified of what this monster of an illness could do to me. I had nightmares.
While this campaign is often lauded as a roaring success, stopping the spread of HIV in its tracks in the UK, Walker nevertheless warns of serious brand issues in the future if others follow a similar approach.
"You may raise awareness, but you may find it harder to engage people later on because they have all put their guards up; everything to do with your brand terrifies them. You can also induce paralysis, where they are stuck and can’t take any action," she says.
Even if you decide that causing abject terror would be the strategy with the most impact, there is another, more ethical concern to grapple with: do you, as a marketer, want to risk giving children nightmares? Is that in keeping with the values of your organisation or you, as a human being?
Emma Pinchbeck, head of energy and climate policy at conservation organisation WWF-UK, has decided it isn’t. While WWF’s ads are often cited as frightening consumers, in her UK beat she takes pains to highlight the positivity, rather than focus on fear.
If any brand could be excused for inducing terror about the future, it would surely be one that fights for action against climate change. So why doesn’t she believe in fear as fuel?
"Yes, the science is frightening. But scaring people witless is not necessarily the way to incite action," she says. "Maybe we’d get more marketing traction, but we’d also alienate some of our audience, and lose some scientists, some of the electorate and some politicians. Our message is we can still have a positive life and also fight climate change.
We are arguing for a balanced, sustainable world vision. If you escalate the debate to the extreme, you tend to look unreasonable. The green movement has too long suffered from the image of being irrational hysterics."
WWF’s most-retweeted image is not one showing an apocalyptic future landscape – it’s of a car on a bridge. The accompanying text asks: "97% of experts say this bridge is going to collapse. 3% say not to worry. Would you keep driving?"
Since it was posted last August, at the time of writing, it has been retweeted more than 2700 times and ‘favourited’ by more than 900 people. Pinchbeck believes it works because "it couples fear with wit – it doesn’t push the audience to inaction; it pushes them to pause and think".
Marketers need to pause and think hard before employing fear tactics. Toto Ellis, head of strategy at ad agency Droga5 London, finds the idea that "fear marketing" is a recognised tactic in itself terrifying.
As he says: "We live in a society where we’re all over-exposed, not just to marketing messages, but also to messaging full-stop, from news coverage to social-media feeds. Yes, extremes are a way of standing out. However, I would hope that marketers play more with the extremes that aren’t about fear, as we all have enough of that in our lives."