Great Moments in Marketing Fear

I may not be a marketer by profession, but I doubt I’d get much argument from the pros about what sells best—reliably, dependably, year in and year out.

Sex. And fear.

Maybe sex is number one. But if so, it’s not by much.  Fear of fill-in-the-blank. Being left behind. Being left out. Not getting the joke. Looking dumb. Dressing wrong. Knowing the wrong people. Doing the wrong thing. Not doing the right thing. Being stuck with something that smells. Having a house that smells. Being the smell.

Identifying the right “pitch” or “hook” is, I suspect, even more important for fear-based products. Case in point: a particularly clever new product.

Introducing Slydial—see the August 2 New York Times article, Don’t Want to Talk About It? Order a Missed Call, by Matt Richtel:

When Alexis Gorman, 26, wanted to tell a man she had been dating that the courtship was over, she felt sending a Dear John text message was too impersonal. But she worried that if she called the man, she would face an awkward conversation or a confrontation.

So she found a middle ground. She broke it off in a voice mail message, using new technology that allowed her to jump directly to the suitor’s voice mail, without ever having to talk to the man — or risk his actually answering the phone.

The technology, called Slydial, lets callers dial a mobile phone but avoid an unwanted conversation — or unwanted intimacy — on the other end. The incoming call goes undetected by the recipient, who simply receives the traditional blinking light or ping that indicates that a voice mail message has been received.

Genius. Elegant in its simplicity. The sweet relief of being able to plausibly lie and avoid conflict at the same time.  It’s calling when you know someone will be out—squared.

Where does this fit in the pantheon of problem-solving inventions? It’s gotta be up there with Get Out of Jail Free cards, the morning-after pill, the hangover pill (slot as yet unfilled), homework-eating dogs, and the deus ex machina plotline.

Because almost all our worst fears involve other humans. Fear of being eaten alive in the forest by bears? Chicken——, compared to the mortification of a teenager shunned by peers. Hearing Sister Mary say you’ll rot in hell for doing whatever it was you already did. Receiving a dear John call. Calling dear John.

Slydial is unique only in one tiny detail. You already have access to voicemail. You can already send digitized voice messages. Slydial’s tiny tweak is the shortcut straight to voicemail, unbeknownst to the receiver. It is the caller’s equivalent of caller ID or spam filters. One small step for technology—one giant leap for Freudkind.

Because this permits the caller to lie. Plausibly.

The caller’s lie is this: “Hey, I tried to call you, but you were out. So I guess I’ll just have to leave this message on voicemail—not that I want to, gosh I hate to do this kind of thing so impersonally. Sorry about that, but—well, it wasn’t my fault. So, anyway, hey—I’m breaking up with you. I couldn’t make it into work today. The dog ate my homework. About your party, you know, pre-existing commitment. We’ll do lunch another time. Sorry I missed your birthday.”

All without that distaste that accompanies having to talk to the Other.

Seinfeld’s George Costanza—the patron saint of avoidance—would have loved Slydial. His spiritual progenitor, Larry David, would know just how to market it. Perhaps Slydial’s owner, MobileSphere, should hire David to consult, based on this from the article:

MobileSphere’s co-founder, Gavin Macomber, said the tool was a time-saver in a world in which conversations could waste time, whereas voice mail can get directly to the point. Part of the reason people are so overwhelmed, Mr. Macomber said, is because they are connected to devices and streams of data around the clock.

Puh-leeze. Alexis Gorman knows better. She works in marketing, and says of her Dear John slydial, “I can do without the drama…I wanted to avoid an awkward conversation.”

So does Manny Mamakis, also quoted in the article as finding it a time-saver. But then Manny speaks the Truth:

“It does make you more cowardly,” he said.

Slydial’s effectiveness—like Borat or Punk’d—depends on being relatively unknown. It loses power once it goes mass-market. “You rat, don’t think you can Slydial me!

I predict a meteoric—albeit short-lived—success for Slydial. Anything that feeds fear of other people will sell well. Sex it up and the sky’s the limit.

Sometimes fear sells you what you actually do need—say, the morning after pill.  But other times it sells you the illusion of what you need.  What you need is usually closure, not avoidance.  


3 replies
  1. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:


    Could society possibly come up w/ any more gizmos to keep people from speaking & listening to each other ??? This is the height of cowardice!!!!  This is nirvana come true for the techie that would rather cut off their arm than have a "live" conversation w/ another person.

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    The basic conscious or unconscious motive is to "hide", the result of being unable to connect emotionally with another…notwithstanding the denials and rationalizations that this is "the best way" to connect in this instance. More like dis-connect, on a deeper level.

    The message below the voice mail message  is: "Hey, I need to be emotionally distant since I dont’ have a clue about my own relationship with my own self or my own emotions…so I need a way to ‘not connect’."

    I’ll bet that this isn’t only about breaking off relationships, or about "business matters."

    I’ll bet a dollar that patners and spouses will soon be "leaving messages" to avoid the discomfort that comes with their inability to be open and honest in dealing with one dealing openly with conflict…in telling one’s spouse/partner "I’ll be home late, don’t wait up…", or "I’m sorry I…"; the guilt-free, in-the-moment denial untility (perhaps a substitute for those who shun alcohol but need a boost to make it easy) for folks who don’t have the intestinal fortitude, or heart, or self-responsibility to say it face-to-face, even over the phone. 

    Distance, and emotional distance, for them, is the great equalizer…so what better way than to bypass the other.

    It’s too bad that one doesn’t have to look into a mirror, at themselves, while they use this "easy out" through a direct to voice mail, cowardly strategy.

    "Sly"…hmmm. Delusional…more probably.

    In our culture today, however, neither shocking, nor surprising.

  3. Lance Jepsen Author of Internet Marketing
    Lance Jepsen Author of Internet Marketing says:

    "He has not learned the first lesson in life who does not every day surmount a fear."
    – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    People buy because of fear. People fear death. They fear getting old. They fear going broke. They fear missing out. Fear comes in many forms and is the most powerful motivator causing people to buy. Always try to work fear into your marketing literature.  I drink orange juice and take a multi-vitamin pill every morning not because I like the taste or want to be super healthy but because I fear getting sick if I do not. I take my car in to have the oil changed every 6 months not because I want my car to run well but because I fear my car breaking down if I do not.

    The reason fear is the most powerful motivator to get people to do what you want stems from the basic need for survival. If you can scare people into buying your product out of fear they will die, you will be guaranteed to increase your sales. "Buy this nicotine patch, this nicotine gum, instead of buying smokes, and live longer" is the basic sales pitch. Nicotine patches and nicotine gum as a solution to breaking a smoking addiction in order to live longer is very powerful sales copy.

    OnStar used fear to make billions. Their best pulling ad was an actual recorded call of a little girl saying, "We just had an accident and my Mom isn’t moving, please help!" This planted the idea in peoples minds that what if that happened to me when I was driving? What would my daughter do if we did not have OnStar?

    The tragedy that results in market cycles can be used to make money. I wrote a sales letter for a property management company that advertised their single family home services with the headline, "Afraid Of Losing Your Home To Foreclosure?"

    Anger is a subset of fear. On 911 Americans, across the country, went out and bought American flags to hang on their houses and cars. Fear lasted about 3 days after the attack, then anger took over.

    Anger can be a very powerful motivator. People hire a lawyer to sue because they are angry at someone. People will go to war because of anger.

    Always consider both fear and anger and which is stronger. For example:

    "Afraid Of The IRS?"
    "Angry At The IRS?"

    In this case, anger is the slightly stronger emotion and is the one you should use in the context above. Here is another example:

    "Afraid Of A Fire?"
    "Hate Fires?"

    Fear is slightly stronger than hate (anger) in the example above and should be the one you use.

    Always consider both fear and anger as one emotional category and test both, in the context of your product or service, to see which is stronger.

    Perhaps the most famous use of fear in advertising ever was Tony Schwartz’s legendary ‘Daisy Ad’ for the Johnson campaign. Schwartz suffered from agoraphobia, an abnormal fear of open or public places, and so he understood the controlling power of fear very well.

    The ad was broadcast on Sept. 7, 1964, during NBC’s "Monday Night at the Movies." It showed a little girl in a meadow (in reality a Manhattan park), counting aloud as she plucks the petals from a daisy. Her voice dissolves into a man’s voice counting downward, followed by the image of an atomic blast. President Johnson’s voice is heard on the soundtrack:

    "These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die."

    A combination of fear and vanity marketing is often used by plastic surgeons. The idea is to appeal to peoples’ vanity by exposing their fear of aging.

    Kevin Trudeau combines self-improvement with fear in his sales copy: "Natural Cures They Don’t Want You To Know About!" The first sentence in his sales copy reads, "The revolutionary book that talks about the reasons you are sick and how the American Medical Association, Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the pharmaceutical cartels are suppressing information about natural remedies and natural cures for virtually every disease."

    As the great Abraham Maslow wrote, "Practically everything looks less important than safety."

    People buy a little to gain something, but they buy a lot when they fear losing something important if they do not. If guns were outlawed by Congress and the public was told that, after next Friday, they could never purchase a gun again, gun stores across the country would sell out in short order. Even people who never considered owning a gun would rush out and buy one because of their fear at missing out on a last chance opportunity. Last chance sales copy is always very powerful.


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