How The Advertising Industry Embraced Fear

Sex doesn’t sell, it’s fear. In the first episode of Mad Men (Smoke gets in your eyes) Don Draper outlines the appeal of fear as a tool for selling with chilling clarity. “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness,” he calmly tells his clients. “And do you know what happiness is? … It’s freedom from fear.”

This has been the simple quest of consumerism for the past half-century: to pinpoint with laser-like accuracy the anxieties of the consumer at any given moment, from the nebulous (economic insecurity) to the specific (bird flu). One former marketing executive from a soft drinks multinational even told me how they would brainstorm these anxieties on a “whiteboard of worry”. The purpose? To brilliantly, cunningly hone a product that offers temporary “freedom from fear”, temporary because a new fear and a new product will be on their way soon. Here are some of the ways it is done.

How 9/11 sold us the Hummer – as a suburban car

After the September 11 attacks, market research suggested the public were now terrified of “the outside”, generally, and an opportunity was spotted by an extraordinary French anthropologist called Clotaire Rapaille, who lives in a big, spooky chateau. For more than 30 years, he’s been advising companies such as General Motors, Kellogg’s and Philip Morris on how to exploit what he calls, scarily, the consumer’s “reptilian brain”. This reptilian brain could be triggered to sell cars, and Rapaille believed a military vehicle designed for war could now be sold to bankers in golfing jumpers. Yes, the Hummer was coming to Clapham. “It’s a weapon,” he told me. “The message is: ‘Don’t mess with me. If you want to bump into me I’m going to crush you and I’m going to kill you.'”

With people fearful of the outside world, the car now needed to offer sanctuary. “It gives me superiority in a very dangerous world,” Rapaille says. The aggressive Humvee mindset spawned a less antisocial alternative: the SUV (sport utility vehicle), with its high-up military-style vantage point, from which to spot approaching danger, and with macho bumpers signalling solidity and indestructibility. Even the cup holders, says Rapaille, are not really about holding cups: they reinforce a psychological signal of stability. SUV sales soared and in the early noughties accounted for more than 20% of all American car sales.

In reality, SUVs were the opposite of the message they sent out: far more likely to roll over than smaller, lower cars. But the illusion of safety is what mattered. Freedom from fear, even if that freedom is a chimera, sells the thing to us.

Where it all began: bad breath

“Jane has a pretty face. Men notice her lovely figure but never linger long. Because Jane has one big minus on her report card – halitosis: bad breath.” (1950s advertisement for Listerine.)

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