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Be afraid, be very afraid

"Now, you and I know that we would never fall for those marketing tricks."

So much of our buying behaviour is about insuring ourselves against a scary world and a frightening future. The technique is so common, you’ve probably heard it all before.

But for the uninitiated, when it comes to fear, the marketers’ approach goes something like this:

The Problem

  • Invent a problem
  • Promote the problem
  • Get someone in authority to convince consumers that it must be a problem

The Solution

  • Create an easy and stress-free solution (the product)
  • Perhaps add a bit of science and maybe some stats to give it some credibility
  • Argue that all that they were doing is responding to consumer needs.

It’s so ingrained in the marketing discipline that the simplified model taught in most undergraduate classes refers to “problem identification” (by the consumer) as the first step in consumer behaviour.

Reasons to be fearful

Whether it’s worrying about your child’s performance at school, having too much bacteria on your kitchen bench, in your mouth, or on your hands, but not enough bacteria in your stomach, and even pesky groin sweat, the world according to marketing gives us many reasons to be fearful. And while there is a some scope to be a little concerned, it certainly isn’t enough to warrant the existential anxiety that marketers have created for us.

Now, you and I know that we would never fall for those marketing tricks. We listen to the ABC. We watch Gruen. Of course, it doesn’t work on us.

But, obviously it must work on other people.

And, to give them their dues, it’s actually nothing to do with their flawed thinking, or greed, or the fact that they watch too much commercial television. It’s predominantly because humans evolved to respond intuitively to all sorts of threats, even emotional ones, rather than think about them too much.

To think about them would require time and effort, so it is eminently more efficient to respond to the fear first, then think about it later. If we hadn’t evolved in this way, it is likely that a saber-toothed cat would have been munching on one of our ancestor’s legs while they were still contemplating the pros and cons of running.

George Loewenstein considered choice under uncertainty to be an issue of how people feel (as opposed to think) about their choice at the moment of decision-making. He called it the risk as feelings hypothesis. According to Loewenstein and his colleagues, it is how we ‘feel’ at the moment of decision making, rather than a calculated, thoughtful decision-making process, that has the greatest influence on our choices.

We often allow our immediate emotional response to something influence how we cognitively assess it. Anytime we make a choice, but particularly when we are cognitively or physically depleted (I’ll explain depletion in a moment), we respond first, then process (milliseconds) later.

One of the most important discoveries arising from research in this field is that the human brain’s “speaking” hemisphere contains a unique “interpreter” function that generates a conscious explanation for any unconsciously motivated action or unconsciously generated feeling, and makes us totally believe that the conscious explanation that occurred just after our emotional response, actually was the reason for the action or feeling. We don’t reflect or ‘think’ about how we came to this conclusion; we don’t even know that we have come to a conclusion. It’s simply more efficient to respond.

So, for example, if I’m worried about ageing, I am more likely to evaluate how I emotionally feel about it, than whether it is a rational thing to be concerned about. And that is why they show me men’s moisturiser advertisements during football games; a time when I’m unlikely to be thinking rationally, and may be a little depleted and perhaps emotional, which leaves me very susceptible.

Watch a horror movie right there on my TV

A direct link to a potential danger is one way that marketers nudge consumers towards products, but even incidental fear (a fear that is not related to the product being sold) has been shown to create affiliations with brands.

A study published last month in the Journal of Consumer Research found that under certain conditions, fear can be used to create emotional attachments to completely unrelated products. Lea Dunn and Joandrea Hoegg found that people who experienced fear, in this case, watching the films The Ring and Salem’s Lot, felt a greater emotional attachment to a brand of soft drink. Although the attachment to the brand, in relative terms, was quite weak, it was found to be statistically significant, while the sad, happy and excited conditions that were tested did not have any effect on participants’ sense of attachment to the brand.

The researchers argued this effect could be explained by the fact that fear creates a motivation to form an attachment to something… anything… even, sadly, a softdrink brand. Fear also heightens sensitivity to the environment, which manifests as increased eye contact (although not with the can of drink) and visual attention. It also results in a desire to search for cues to relieve that negative state.

They speculate that by directing their attention toward a brand, people may be attempting to cope with their fear. And because the fear may take place under social conditions, the person is likely to want to share their experience with others, and the emotional process of sharing the experience with someone has the (counter-intuitive?) effect of associating itself with the brand.

The researchers drew their explanation from research in social psychology over the past 50 years, that has found that people who experience a fearful event together, tend to develop a sense of solidarity with those who were present during the frightening experience. It seems we give our brands human qualities. Other research in psychology has shown that the greater the threat, the greater the person’s tendency to want to affiliate with people that they perceive to be like them. So fear trumps all.

I guess you could argue that this is an example of using fear for good. Just make sure that the closest thing isn’t a thing, but maybe that special friend that you would like to be that little bit more special… and a can of Coke?

Using fear for good not evil

While there are plenty of examples where fear is used by marketers to get us to buy things we probably don’t need, there are also situations when fear can be used to influence us into doing things that are actually good for us, such as getting tested for kidney disease, avoiding unprotected sex, and choosing sunblock over a plain moisturiser.

There are a range of different perspectives around whether fear actually works in changing behaviour, especially in those areas where we see a lot of fear campaigns, like quitting smoking or eating healthily. Some research suggests that ongoing use of fear in these types of campaigns creates a flee response; so that often the target market for these campaigns actually create psychological defenses so that they can ignore the message. It also becomes an expected norm, so we start to tune out to the fear message after a few exposures.

However, a recent paper in the Journal of Consumer Research called “Depletion Heightens Self-Protective Behavior in the Face of Danger” suggested that fear can work for good under certain conditions.

So what is depletion?

Research in psychology tells us that people have limited resources to manage self-control, such as resisting our more impulsive or implicit responses. When our energy to resist is depleted, then we have less self-control. And depletion can be something as benign as being given a simple mathematical task, being given too many choices, going for a run, noisy environments, resisting eating food that you know is not good for you, or even just being tired. And depletion begets depletion.

So the more we try to resist something, the less resources we have to continue to resist that something, along with any other impulses, or new and exciting stimuli around at the time. For example, studies have found that athletes performed worse at their particular athletic endeavour, after they had been given a mathematical task. So it can influence both cognitive and physical effort, and the activities dint really have to be connected.

In this paper, the researchers found that depleted participant, as opposed to nondepleted participants, were less likely to engage in risky behaviours, such as having unprotected sex, and more likely to engage in risk-reduction behaviours, such as getting tested for chlamydia or kidney disease. In other words, letting the impulsive response take over in this situation actually resulted in better outcomes for those participants.

There is also research in neurology that supports this, in that depletion shifts the regulatory balance away from the frontal regions, where a large proportion of executive function and what might be called rational processing goes on, to the left amygdala which is the part of the brain that’s involved in detecting danger and self-protection.

However, there are some caveats. The most important being that it may not work in situations where there are other forces competing with the appropriate behaviour. So, for example, it would be unlikely to work in quit smoking campaigns, because a significant antecedent of smoking behaviour is related to the social pressure to fit in. In that situation, the key self-protection mechanism is likely to be related to protecting the social self, rather than the relatively abstract personal health self.

So, it may not work in all community campaigns. But it reminds us of the nuance in research, and the importance of understanding the complexity of findings, and how they will influence consumer behaviour.


Loewenstein et al (2001) – Risk as feelings

The impact of fear on emotional brand attachments

The Bright Side of Impulse: Depletion Heightens Self-Protective Behavior in the Face of Danger

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