How scare tactics are being used to sell us stuff

We're all afraid of something and marketers are very good at identifying our fears and using them to sell us stuff.

Marketers are getting very good at playing on our fears to get us to buy products and services

A Bayer ad trying to sell Aspirin threatens consumers with impending health problems. (Bayer)

We're all afraid of something, and marketers are very good at identifying our fears and using them to sell us stuff. If marketers can make us afraid of something, we'll buy any product that promises to help us avoid that fear.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, U.S. consumers saw the world as a dangerous place and were genuinely afraid. General Motors capitalized on that fear by marketing the Hummer as military indestructibility that could protect a family from external threats.

In this 2007 ad, we see a Hummer changing Transformer-like into a tracked vehicle, weapons launcher, land jet —basically any impregnable fighting machine you need to safely transport your family in a post-9/11 world.

The Canadian Real Estate Association also adopted a military theme in this 2014 ad. We see a SWAT team descending on a suburban house and discovering a couple asleep in bed.

It seems that telling us about the advantages of using a Realtor isn't enough. Only when we see what horrific — albeit extremely rare — things can happen without a Realtor do we understand the value of using one.

Still on a military theme, this Canadian Armed Forces ad evokes a scary and violent world and implies that the way to protect Canada from such a world is by enlisting or supporting deployment.

You don't have to venture out into the world to face threats. Dyson has played on our fears of evil dust mites to sell vacuums.

But a much more powerful motivator is our fear of threats to our children and families, as in this alarm system ad.

Perhaps the most manipulative use of fear is in drug ads aimed at people who already have a legitimate cause for concern. Here, we see a woman pick up a note that reads, "Your heart attack arrives in two days."

Clearly, marketers know exactly which buttons to push and are eager to push them.

But before you buy a product that promises to help you avoid some scary outcome, see if you can remember what transformed your initial concern into stomach-churning fear. If it was an ad, take a deep breath, relax and put your money back in your wallet.

Bruce Chambers is a syndicated advertising columnist for CBC Radio. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?