Beware the Ides of March: Marketing Scare Tactics That Work

March 15, 2016

Death of Caesar

Ever since a soothsayer warned Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March in Shakespeare’s classic play, March 15 has served as an infamous reminder of the power of negative messaging – and the consequences of ignoring it. Modern marketers can take advantage of negative messaging – aka scare tactics – to help influence action. The following lists five common marketing scare tactics that work.

1. Fear of missing out

This is oft-employed strategy plays on customers’ fear of missing an opportunity to gain something desirable. For example, let’s say a car dealership launches a multi-postcard marketing campaign that promotes a special “highest trade-in value” guarantee. The final postcard in the series might tell customers this is their “last chance” to get the best deal on a new vehicle, that prices “will never be this low again,” and/or that they’ll “never find a better deal.” The implication is obvious: if they miss out on this opportunity to get the car they want now, they’ll pay more than they have to later.

2. Fear of pain

Pain avoidance is a powerful platform, and the fear of pain can be used to motivate people to take action. Common examples include drug companies that use medical horror stories to sell their solutions and anti-smoking posters that depict the pain of cancer. Health isn’t the only pain point, of course – a roadside assistance program, for example, could play on the pain of having to change a flat tire in an undesirable neighborhood. Your audience has pain points, and you have the solution.

3. Fear of letting others experience pain

This is related to the fear of pain, but instead of fearing personal pain we fear the pain we can cause to others by our actions and even inactions. Nonprofit organizations often employ this strategy. For example, a nonprofit that provides food for malnourished children in third-world countries might print posters that show the devastating effects of starvation along with a call to action for donations. A drug abuse clinic might place banners or billboards that remind people what alcoholism does to a family along with a web URL for getting help.

4. Social fear

Another powerful motivator, social fear is used to sell everything from clothing and cosmetics to cars and weight loss plans. Most people want to fit in, and if they do want to stand out they want it to be in a positive manner. They want clothing and makeup that makes them look beautiful, they want cars that make them look cool or powerful, and they want to lose weight to look in shape. Marketers can and do play on the fears of looking out-of-shape, ugly, dorky, and uncool to promote such products and services.

5. Fear of loss

This is similar to the fear of missing out, but instead of losing an opportunity it plays on the fear of losing something you already have. Home security systems are a prime example, as they often play on the fear of burglary, theft, and home invasion to sell their security solutions.

Just about any business or organization can use marketing scare tactics to influence people. Some organizations are better-suited for this strategy than others, and you also have to factor in ethical implications. That said, if your audience has something to be afraid of – and you offer a real, working solution – marketing scare tactics can help you motivate action.

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Image: Morte di Giulio Cesare ("Death of Julius Caesar"). By Vincenzo Camuccini, 1798, via Wikipedia

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About Brian Morris

Brian Morris serves in various capacities as a freelance writer, content developer and public relations specialist for growing small businesses. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the racquetball court - usually getting his tail kicked by guys 20 years older.

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