The Science of Fear-Based Marketing

Fear based marketing

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Do you drink bottled water? Is there a country you haven’t been to that you dislike? If you answered YES to any of these there is a big change you are a victim of the EVIL fear-based marketing or FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

Before I get deeper into the fear-based marketing, I’d like you to watch a minute of the video below. Observe your body. Do you feel any tension? How is your breathing? Do you feel your palms sweating?

You might not have fallen into a panic, but I’m pretty confident that you at least felt uncomfortable watching the video. Why did you have that reaction when you were probably just sitting in your chair? The reason is that your brain does not distinguish between a video, imagination, and reality. This explains why we feel a full range of emotions while watching a movie and dreaming while physically not being involved.

What are the mechanics of fear?

To put it simply, we have a section of our brain called amygdala. When we are confronted with a threat, this section shuts off other brain parts that are responsible for logical thinking. When this happens, our brain becomes limited to only emotional responses - fight or flight. Fight means we confront the problem, flight means we find an escape from the problem. This functionality is very helpful when we are about to get hit by a truck. We don’t have time to calculate the speed and distance. We’re down to two choices: flee or fight. (Hint: choose to flee.)

How can you implement this in marketing?

There are two different strategies for using the fear-based marketing approach. One is short-term and the other is long-term. If you are selling products or services that don’t require customer retention, you probably need to create a short-term strategy. An example would be an online course that requires a one lump sum payment. However, if you are trying to build a brand, long-term strategy is more appropriate.

Short-term strategy

The short-term fear tactics have to be much more intense than long-term. Remember, you’re not trying to sell through logical articulation. Your goal is to trigger a fear-based emotional response in your target and ask them to make a buying decision while the emotions are still high. This requires three steps.

  1. Vividly paint an exaggerated problem
  2. Become the best solution to their problem
  3. Create a sense of urgency to buy

Let’s go over every step.  Pretend you’re selling sleep aid supplements.

  1. Exaggerate. Do you wake up feeling like you haven’t slept at all? Do you feel like you’re performing at 40% of your capacity? Stop existing, start living. Reclaim your childhood sleep now.
  2. Solution. Our clients noticed significant improvements on the FIRST NIGHT.
  3. Urge. Create a clock countdown for a limited offer. Use words like limited time, only, last chance, deadline, one day only, never again. Offer bonus material if they purchase right now.

Do not create any unnecessary steps that can prevent a person from making the purchase. The faster the person is able to get through the process, the more likely the sale will happen. Every extra step can become a trigger that awakens them from their emotional state. If they leave, chances are they will never come back.

I still see some businesses using fear-based marketing strategy. They usually make the page look exciting with many “free” offers that are hard to resist and a video promising that secret or solution that will change customer’s life forever. However, this strategy may not be sustainable if you’re trying to build a business for the long term.

Long-term strategy

Although both long-term and short-term fear-based marketing strategies are focused on fear, the approach is much different. With the long-term strategy, we are not trying to stir up strong emotions like with the short-term strategy. Continual overstimulation will cause what's called fear extinction, turning our message into obnoxious shouting, which can significantly hurt our brand. With long-term fear-based marketing, we want to position our brand as a champion of good and comfort against the evil and scary without explicitly stating so. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Bottled water

Imagine going back 2000 years and telling ancient people that the future civilizations will sell water for $1.50 a bottle to people that have an unlimited supply at home. Our ancestors would lose any hope in the future of humanity. The bottled water industry is worth over $12 billion in the US alone, and most of our faucet water is TOTALLY fine. Another fact for environmentally conscious - those plastic bottles can only be recycled ONCE. After they are recycled once or twice, they will lay in the landfill or swim in the ocean for at least 450 years. Check out some of their ads.

Drink pure, live long. I better start drinking Kelbey water so I don't risk losing a few years of my beautiful life. Untouched by man. Yummy! Perhaps it’s been touched by gods themselves. You see, the goal of bottled water companies is to position themselves as champions of purity and longevity against the evil tap water touched by men!


The same strategy is being used by politicians before they decide to spread democracy in oil-rich countries. They position themselves as saviors of the human civilization against evil regimes. By manufacturing a feeling of fear in the country, they’re able to gain public support. Once the nation is prepared to fight the evil, they invade.


How about L’Oreal’s tagline “Because I’m worth it”. The brand implicitly aims at women’s insecurities about their worth, as if there is some evil telling them they’re not worth their mascara. Perhaps aiming at some childhood wound that left a stain on their confidence.

Again, these companies don’t explicitly talk about “evil”. They create an aura of doubt and uncertainty by positioning themselves as champions against those insecurities.

Here are some words that are used in fear-based marketing:

Safe - Save - Trustworthy - Confident - Privileged - Genuine - Authentic - Reliable - Trusting - Deserve - Hope - Brave - Comfortable

My thoughts on fear-based marketing

Most of the human interactions are about persuasion and social tricks. As we grow up, we learn to navigate the world. We notice what words and actions trigger certain emotional responses. In many of our social interactions, our words don’t fully reflect our thoughts. Otherwise, none of us would ever get along. You don’t say everything on your mind on your first date or at a business meeting.

So if it’s normal to be strategic in our everyday interaction, I don’t see anything wrong with using some social tricks to grow our business. However, there is a difference between persuasion and manipulation. If your marketing tricks are meant to deceive and manipulate people - I’d think twice. However, if you’re using persuasive tricks for the good of the customer - more power to you. Trick them into stopping smoking, improve the environment, prevent accidents, etc.

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