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What are you afraid of?

By Jeff Margenau
Published: Thursday, November 20, 2003

Jeff Margenau

When I was in college I became interested in marketing as it was apparently all about determining what people wanted so that you could get it to them efficiently and make a buck in the process. Well, that's what I was told in the introductory classes anyway. As I progressed through the more advanced marketing classes, the basic premise of marketing slowly morphed until it became something altogether different than the original selfless goal of providing what people wanted. It became a question of how do you make the majority of people want what you want them to want - or how do you make them want what you have and are trying to get rid of. On the surface that may not sound too bad, but in the practice of marketing it many times becomes a matter of making people feel bad about not having what they are trying to sell. As you might suspect, the easiest way to do that - or motivate a person to do almost anything - is through fear.

At first fear might not seem to be an appropriate motivating force. But the fact is fear is a primordial motivator and therefore one of the most effective motivating forces. Take notice of how products and ideas are sold and you will soon begin to see how fear is used by marketers.

There are two basic methods of using fear to sell products and ideas. The first method is the "indirect scare" and involves depicting positive images of a person that believes in the idea or already has the product you are trying to sell. For example, smiling nice looking people having a good time with the product/idea being sold. This works by suggesting you should fear that you are not as happy and safe as you could be if you only had their product or believed in their message. The second method is the "direct scare" method and involves depicting negative images of situations that come about because you don't use the product or believe in the idea they are trying to sell. Either way the message is clear. A practiced ear and eye will hear and see the use of fear in most media messages. Often you will see it concealed in words like "Protection", "Security", "Insure" and similar words that connote fear.

The fact of the matter is - fear sells. Fear is used effectively by commercial businesses, the medical pharmaceutical insurance complex, government, and organized religions. In fact, fear can be used quite successfully whenever any organization with the money to buy the media wants to control another groups beliefs and/or actions. How is this possible? Because the media is an incredibly effective teaching tool that is used to repeat messages to those who watch TV, listen to the radio, and read. Why is the repetition of these messages so important? Because people learn through repetition and we can only "know" what we have seen or been told. For example, you can't even consider buying a product if you have never seen or heard of it. Therefore if you are to buy an advertised product, it is very important for you to see or hear these messages and as often as possible. And that goes for "buying" ideas as well.

Below are a few examples of how organizations use fear to control people:

Commercial Businesses
Are you pretty enough? Is your car cool enough? Is your breath OK? Do you have the latest technology? Are your teeth white enough? Are your clothes in the latest fashion? Is your computer fast enough? I could go on, but I think you get the point.

The Medical Pharmaceutical Insurance Complex
Do you have heartburn? Do you have acne? Do you have sexual dysfunction? Do you have memory problems? As if the medical industrial complex hadn't enough money, they have now embraced the advantages of marketing to the masses. My guess is that I don't need to provide examples here, but next time you hear, read, or see a message from the medical community, take notice of how the base message is that you need their "protection" from something you should be afraid of.

Organized Religions
Our guilt and natural fear of death are relieved by forgiveness and eternal salvation - usually at a cost. Every organized religion makes promises to soothe your soul for a price - sort of like selling your soul to god. Don't get me wrong. Churches are usually filled with wonderful people that many times provide needed services. But why do they play on our fears? An organized religion cannot exist without money.

By now many US citizens understand how a government can use fear to control people. Everyday the US government sends messages that connote fear. It is usually disguised in words like "Security" and "Protection" and more blatantly used with words like "terrorism" and "evildoers". The formula is quite simple and has been used for thousands of years. First you create an enemy. Then convince the people that they are in mortal danger from this enemy.

To a large extent, what we "buy" - whether that be the latest toothpaste, eternal life, or propaganda from our government - we buy out of fear.

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Jeff Margenau
Jeff Margenau

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