Are Fear Tactics Ever Okay?

Here’s a little fact that some of you will bristle at. You ready?

Negative emotions sell better than positive ones.

Hmm. How does that make you feel?

I hear from some folks that you’re hesitant to use fear or negativity in your marketing. It doesn’t feel like an ethical marketing practice. And I get it—a lot of examples we see out in the marketplace use fear to make people feel awful and get them to buy stuff they don’t need.

I’m all for following your convictions. But today, I’d like to offer a bit of perspective on why not all fear selling is bad—and how you can even use “fear tactics” ethically.

Oof. Stay with me here.

Why does fear sell?

Let’s start with the basics. Fear makes us take action.

Why? Fear is what has kept us safe since humans first showed up on this planet. Scary bear means run the other way. Dangerous weather means build a stronger house.

Fear is our body’s way of telling us we need to change something, pronto.

Of course, this means it’s often exploited. If we all have built-in panic buttons, it’s easy for marketers to get us to do what they want.

But there’s a bad side to fear marketing, and a good side.

Let’s talk about the bad side first.

How to use fear like a slimy salesman

What’s an industry that loves to use fear tactics… evilly?

The weight loss industry.

It’s rarely stated outright, but many companies embed harmful messages (that they know work), like:

“You have to lose weight to find love.”

“You have to be skinny to be accepted.”

Awful sh*t.

You see it in the grayed-out before/colorful after pictures. You see it in the “Flat Tummy Co” Times Square ad promoting appetite-suppressing lollipops that describes its customers as “1.5 million babes and counting.”

They’re saying that you have to stop eating to be sexually attractive. They play on your fears of being unloved to get you to buy their products (the effectiveness of which is dubious at best).

We know this message is wrong. But what makes it wrong?

It’s not the fear tactics alone. Let me provide a comparison.

How to use fear like a responsible business owner

Imagine this:

You pull up to a garage for an oil change. The mechanic saunters over and takes your payment.

“Hmm, did you go off-road recently?” he asks, suddenly leaning over to inspect the mud plastered against the sides of your car. “If you leave that mud there, it’ll ruin your paint job. How much did you pay for that baby? $20,000? Yikes. My friend ignored mud like that for a few weeks, and lost $3,000 in value just from the peeling paint. Here, I’ve got some boys in the back who’d be happy to give ‘er a quick wash once we’re done with the oil change. I’ll charge you $10 on top and we can call it good.”

Hmm, not a bad deal. You knew that mud can chip paint over time, but you were ignoring the problem. And now, you don’t even have to drive over to a car wash to fix it.

Sure, he used your fear of chipping paint to sell you a product. But this feels different, right?

The difference between good and bad fear tactics

Good fear tactics educate and call attention to important changes that need to be made.

They’re true. They point out a natural and realistic cause-and-effect, and highlight a good reason why you need to make a change.

Bad fear tactics promote a false or harmful belief or a bad product.

It’s the “natural parenting” company suggesting that you that if you don’t use cloth diapers (and, specifically, their cloth diapers), you’re a bad mom.

It’s the shoe company using your fear of looking unprofessional to sell you painful heels that fall apart after two weeks.

I believe fear is a neutral tool

Fear is like a crowbar. You can use it to open the door to a burning house and rescue a child. Or you can use it to pry open someone’s safe to steal their grandma’s jewelry.

But at the end of the day, it’s just a crowbar.

I’m not good with analogies. But you get my point, right?

Because fear isn’t inherently bad. It’s not a pleasant experience, but it’s also there to keep us safe. Fear is what keeps you from driving recklessly next to a cliff, after all. It’s what keeps us alive.

So of course you can use fear for horrific evil. But you can also use it to create a space of understanding for your readers.

And here’s what I know: When you describe real, valid fears back to your clients, you show that you understand them. You see them. And you let them know that they’re in the right place to solve the pain points that they’re experiencing.

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash

So, how can you ethically use “fear tactics” in your own copy?

Here are four questions to ask yourself.

1. What pains are my readers experiencing right now?

What negative experiences are they having? What emotions are they feeling as a result?

2. What is the natural progression if they don’t do anything about it?

If they never fix such-and-such problem, what will their life look like in a week? In a few months? In a few years?

3. Is this true?

Do a gut check. Of course, every human is different, and you can’t predict the future. But is this a reasonable outcome to expect?

4. Does my product/service help prevent this outcome?

You don’t have to offer a magic bullet that solves their problem entirely. But the solution you offer should be a reasonable step in their journey toward preventing the negative outcome.

And remember to balance it with the positive

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

Telling someone to run away from something is useless if you don’t also tell them what to run towards.

You have to balance the negative with the positive. What is the future they could have? As a service provider, ask: what could their life look like after working with you?

Fear helps move readers toward that positive future.

The bottom line: Using fear in your marketing doesn’t have to be evil. In fact, calling out the negative experiences can be a powerful catalyst for transformation in your readers.

If you’re using it responsibly.

Sound off below!

What do you think about using fear in your copy? Do you agree with me, or think I’m off the deep end? I welcome your discussion in the comments!


Feature photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

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