How to Use Fear (Nicely) in Content Marketing

There are two primary motivators for human beings: pleasure and pain. We spend our lives seeking the first and avoiding the second. But the two are used interchangeably in messaging that goes out to the public, including advertising, traditional marketing and content marketing.

For example, pick any car ad you want: You will likely see a couple of happy people driving their new model along a deserted but scenic highway or empty city street, heading off to a party or some form of outdoor adventure. You seldom, if ever, see a car ad that shows that same model navigating a Walmart parking lot on a snowy February day.

The car being advertised is playing both sides: The pleasure principle shows the glamorous, carefree life of the car owner, but the pain principle hints at how uncool you will continue to be if you do not buy this car.

Recently, I was on hold on U-Haul’s toll-free line. In an interesting alternative to the standard customer service explanation of “we are expecting higher than normal call volumes,” U-Haul instead uses “all of our agents are busy helping other families.” Aw. That’s nice. They’re a family-focused, family-owned company — their brand has always pushed that message.

That’s the pleasure principle, but it also hints that if I were to try to cut in line somehow by pressing zero to get an operator, I would be imposing myself not just on U-Haul, but also on all those families. That’s a shrewd and subtle use of the pain principle in marketing.

What Fear-Based Marketing Looks Like

As all content marketers know, the world is awash in content. It is very hard to cut through the noise on behalf of your customer. On social media, for example, we endured years of clickbait come-ons that used the jaw-drop technique: “Check out this top 20 list of celebrity red carpet mistakes —No. 14 made my jaw drop!”

“What shock or horror could make my jaw drop?” you ask yourself silently while clicking.

More recently, promoted content on Twitter and elsewhere employs the “trailing sentence” technique. This is where someone posts an incomplete paragraph like, “My friend works for an airline and she says if you fly on a Friday, you should NEVER ask for —” which appears to get cut off just at the good bit. Of course, it does. You as the reader will forget yourself momentarily, clicking on the article to read the rest of that sensational sentence.

In all these instances, fear is being used to lure the reader into the story. We drop our guard for a moment and follow the lure. On the seedier end of this spectrum, cybercriminals use it in phishing emails and SMS messages to get people to click on malicious links out of momentary panic.

The thing about fear is:

  • Fear is permanent. People will never stop fearing for their safety, because on the most basic instinctive level, that’s what keeps us away from danger and potential death.
  • Fear is predominant. Fear will always overpower joy (sadly). Shock and horror has been selling newspapers for centuries (if it bleeds, it leads). Emotion rules the human creature, and logic is always playing catchup.

Similarly, when high-profile politicians speak egregious lies to the media, they know the lie will be heard and remembered, and any walk back or subsequent retraction will get much less attention. As the old expression goes, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.

Fear In Content Marketing Is Here to Stay

So what does this mean for us as content creators? First, regardless of how much we as a culture advance into newer forms of media, from Facebook to Twitter to TikTok to the metaverse, the fear factor will still predominate.

Of course, certain tropes like the “jaw-drop” will lose their luster, but others will rush in to replace them. You need only watch the commercials for shows like “The Masked Singer” to see the money shot — that look of shocked incredulity on the faces of the judges is way more powerful than any costume when editing a 15-second ad.

Likewise, social media influencers carry substantial weight in the unspoken phrase “I’m up here and you’re not,” which generates a subtle but still powerful wave of esteem-related fear.

Fear does not have to be exploitative. Like in car commercials, fear can be wrapped in a warm and fuzzy coat of derivative pleasure. And there are many fears to choose from: the fear of change, of new technology, of job security, of social acceptance. Any of these can be added to content marketing like spices to a stew — there as part of the overall sensation without bringing tears to the eyes.

Maybe it would be better if this were not the reality. But fear continues to rule. As content creators, we have great power of influence, but with great power comes great responsibility. Choose your deployment of fear wisely if you want your audience to continue following you.

Steve Prentice
Steve Prentice is a specialist in organizational psychology, focusing on the junction where people and technology interact. He helps people and organizations understand each other, the technologies they use and the changes these present. He is a speaker, writer, journalist and university lecturer who specializes in human acceptance of cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the future of work. His fourth is “The Future of Workplace Fear — How Human Reflex Stands in the Way of Digital Transformation” (Apress, May 9, 2022), which delves into this one key fact: Humans are driven by fear and its roots are much deeper than they appear — anyone who seeks to deploy digital transformation successfully must understand this. Learn more at StevePrentice.com.

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