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Trick or treat: The fear factor in marketing


With Halloween approaching, marketers across the country are busy ‘spooking up’ their campaigns. However, fear has long been used as a tool to sell goods and services beyond the use of fake spiders and gruesome ghouls. Fear of an outcome, event or object is a powerful tool, and great minds like Niccolo Machiavelli were quick to realise how it could motivate people, with the cunning Italian famously remarking that “it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both”.

The impact of fear on human motivations influenced many prominent marketing campaigns in addition to political thought. While consumers can feel a great affinity towards certain products, some everyday goods will struggle to resonate with would-be customers as must-have items due to their inherent (un)desirability. Although these products will never be ‘loved’, they can use the ‘fear’ of life without them as a pull factor, and an early campaign from Listerine warning people of ‘chronic halitosis’ is a fine example of this. While mouthwash would never be on someone’s Christmas list, it has managed to become an everyday essential for many through a fear of bad breath.

More recently,  VW’s “safe happens” campaign  is another strong example of using fear to effectively market a product, by reminding consumers of the potentially catastrophic consequences of not having a safe vehicle.  However, employing the fear factor in the modern era  doesn’t always work, with recent Protein World ads asking people if they were ‘beach body ready’ attracting a back-lash in the form of protests. Ironically, the formerly little-known company did receive a significant boost through the subsequent campaigns against its advertising.


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