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.