Monday, March 17, 2008

Fear As a Tool for Marketing Engagement

In an earlier post, I made a couple of obvious points--we humans have emotional senses beyond our physiological ones; we all interpret the input from our physiological senses differently; and whether information we receive is ignored, forgotten, remembered, or initiates a change in our opinions and beliefs depends upon how much our emotional senses are engaged by the content received via our five (or more) physiological senses.

I believe it's important for marketers to recognize that we humans ignore the lion share of data conveyed to our brain via our senses. Those of us in the business fret about the smallest details of the ads we produce as if consumers will hang on every second of our television spots or study every image and word in our print pieces. But the brain is conditioned to ignore meaningless things around us, and for most of us, advertising is pretty meaningless.

Our brain filters most of what we perceive and discards all but the most meaningful of experiences. The data collected via our physical senses gets filtered through a set of emotional senses, and this process determines the way we'll perceive, react to, or remember a given experience.

This filtering is probably a damn good thing for we humans. Imagine if the five physical senses were all we had to go on. We'd feel the same way about our child's first step as their second, thousandth, and 100,000th; sitting in a pew would be the same whether we were attending a funeral, a wedding, or another Sunday service; and the experience of listening to an orchestra tuning would be identical to hearing it perform Barber's Adagio for Strings.

The point is that the more something becomes ordinary, the more we ignore it. We can drive to and from work hundreds of times a year and not recall a single moment of the commute--until we are threatened with an accident, and then our brain instantly records those moments for posterity. In this example, it is the sense of fear that suddenly makes the input from our eyes, ears, and other organs so intense and memorable.

Fear is one of those emotional senses that can be engaged to create a memory. At first glance, it may seem fear isn't a good hook on which marketers might hang their message, but in fact it gets used all the time.

Political marketers love to use (or at least try to use) fear to sway our voting decision. Hillary Clinton recently did so with her "3 am call" ad (shown below). And perhaps the most famous of political fear ads came from Americans for Bush, an arm of the National Security Political Action Committee, which in 1988 ran a campaign ad entitled "Weekend Passes." The ad (included below) mentioned that Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, while governor, permitted a prisoner furlough program that allowed a convicted felon to escape and rape and murder additional victims. The name of that prisoner, Willie Horton, has become synonymous with negative campaign advertising.

Politics isn't the only arena in which fear is used by marketers. Financial and security products are often sold using fear, and fear can be effective in encouraging young people to think about safe driving. (A particularly gruesome example of a seatbelt campaign from Europe is included below.)

Engaging the emotion of fear in an appropriate and realistic way can make advertising in traditional media more experiential and more memorable. But what about the in the real world?

Turner's Adult Swim learned the hard way that unintentionally causing fear can bring some pretty negative results. Last year two marketing executives were arrested after a guerrilla campaign for Aqua Teen Hunger Force went awry. Boston residents thought that electronic devices depicting cartoon characters were bombs, and portions of the city were shut down.

For more successful uses of fear in experiential marketing, simply look to the experiences offered by theme parks. Riding on the Tower of Terror at Disney World's MGM theme park is part of the "product" offered to paying customers (or guests), but it also is a powerful marketing experience that encourages repeat visits. So strong are the memories created by a Tower of Terror encounter that Disney ads need only hint at the fear experienced to engage the emotions (see below).

I couldn't think of any experiential marketing outside of traditional media and theme parks that used fear to create a strong brand impression. Can you think of any? I'd love the opportunity to learn about any branded experiences that make use of consumers' sense of fear to create an engaging experience.

In a world where consumers are faced with more and more advertising messages, the challenge for marketers is to find ways to create experiences with consumers, not simply talk to them. Engaging consumers' emotional senses--such as fear--is how XM works.

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