Advertising gurus repeatedly tell us that focusing on fear is a good thing. People buy because of fear we are constantly told. Focus on the pain, those Internet Marketers tell us. It is nonsense, of course. But it sounds good. The notion is that if we find what people are really scared of then offer them a solution to remove that fear they will buy. Indeed, you can find countless Internet Marketing books which tell you that if you focus on the fear or the pain, the sales will follow. But there is little research to back up such claims.
There is, however, plenty of research which shows the opposite. People do not buy on fear; they buy on pleasure. Do you buy beer because you are frightened of being sober, or because you enjoy drinking? Did you buy your house because you were scared of being homeless, or because you liked the property and its location? Did you buy that latest business book because you were frightened of not knowing its contents, or because you enjoy that author’s work?
An advertising guru would tell us that people buy life insurance, for instance, because they are scared of leaving their family penniless when their demise arrives. So, you see adverts with headlines like “Make sure your family can survive OK even if you are not around any more”. But does that really make people buy? No, they buy on the pleasure their family will get from the financial security, not the painof them going hungry.
When advertising experts really love to get to grips with fear is when they feel they simply have to frighten us into doing something. Back in the 1980s the UK Government ran adverts on protecting yourself from HIV with massive tombstones as the imagery. The idea was that people would be frightened of death due to the infection, so would take protection. Clearly that campaign failed; there are now three times as many cases of HIV per year in the UK as there were when the advertising was started. Fear did not change people’s behaviour.
Similarly, people who smoke are supposedly scared every day by the advertising on the packs which tells them that the product they are about to enjoy is a killer. But they continue to smoke because the pleasure it provides them outweighs the fear factor.
New research confirms that fear is not as powerful a motivator of behavioural change as we think. An advertiser wants you to change behaviour; they want you to go from not buying to buying. This study confirms that when you frighten people or play on their fears all you do is freeze them – essentially you make it harder for them to make the decision whether or not to buy. What this new study actually showed was that you need to really, really scare people out of their wits if the fear factor is to work. So that means our life insurance sales person needs to say things like: “Look, the day you die will be bad enough for your family, wailing, tears, anger and all that. But they probably will not be able to afford a funeral for you so the local authority will give you a cheap coffin and a pauper’s grave. Then your family will get evicted and end up split up in different foster homes, probably never seeing each other again. The shock will be so bad for some of them that one of your kids will probably consider suicide.”…..you get my drift…! If you really, really scare people they may end up buying. But do you want to do that?
Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the pleasure the family will have, living in comfort, being able to carry on with that football season ticket going to the matches and remembering the good times with Dad? That is a message people understand and enjoy thinking about, in turn making them desire the thing that gives them such positive feelings.
Research repeatedly confirms that pleasure is always better than pain. Focusing on the pain in order to market something is simply much less likely to succeed and this new research merely adds to the weight of evidence that frightening people doesn’t work – unless you scare them out of their wits completely.
If you want to sell more online, focus on the pleasure your products and services provide, not the pain they remove.
- The REAL Key To Successful Marketing – Understanding Your Target Audience (anthodges.co.uk)
- Marketing Scare Tactics (aegisbox.com)
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+