You're A Marketer, Not a Terrorist

Quick thought experiment for those of you who smoke.

(Those of you who don’t smoke, skip to the next subheading. Those who vape, subscribe to my newsletter because I’ve got a client you’ll want to hear about.)

Don’t look at your cigarette packet. Just write down what warning you think is written on the top.

How sure are you? Really sure?

Right. Take a look. I bet you got it wrong.

I’ve tried that with friends. I tried it at the DMA copy club last week. And I’ve never had anyone give a right answer. Not even a senior copywriter with a warning that his testicles were about to give up the ghost.

If your GP told you that your near future contained cancer, infertility, hair loss and a painful death, you’d know the exact words that she used. Yet someone sticks that same warning on a product and you zone it out.

Why? Because terrifying copy’s not working.

Project Fear

Last year, we had a little bit of a political set-to. You probably noticed it. Especially because nobody’s shut up about it since, and it’s rendered Twitter, Facebook and toilet-wall graffiti all but pointless. Neither campaign covered themselves in glory, but the marketing minds behind the losing campaign had adopted a tactic that had worked three times before.

They’d used it in 2011 when they said that an alternative voting system would lead to less incubators and more dead babies. People were scared, people did as they were told.

They used it in 2014 when they explained that Scotland would disappear into a £7.6bn black hole. People were scared, people did as they were told.

They used it a third time in 2015 when they explained that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls would steal all of your money. People were scared, people did as they were told.

But the fourth time, it didn’t work. The fourth time, they told people that the pound would crash and jobs would be lost and that Spain would try and reclaim Gibraltar. And people ignored it. Enough people to carry the vote weren’t scared.

They weren’t scared because they were sick of Project Fear. Three times they’d gone along with Project Fear and nothing at all had got any better for them. Ok, it hadn’t got worse, but it wasn’t getting any better. So they went with the campaign that promised things would get better. More hospitals, less red tape and better job prospects.

It didn’t matter whether Project Fear were correct. Just like it didn’t matter whether cigarettes will give you cancer. People had heard the doom and gloom so many times that they tuned it out, and rejected it.

The Case for Negativity

I brought this up at that DMA event I mentioned. I wanted to share some positive ads that Alastaire Allday had knocked up during a Twitter debate, showing a more positive alternative to Project Fear during last year’s referendum arguments.

It went exactly as I’d expected. Nobody wanted to talk about positive marketing when we could instead slate Nigel Farage’s “BEWARE! BROWN PEOPLE!” billboard instead. Which shows that at Copywriting Club, fear’s still a huge motivator.

But as someone who’s name escapes me point out, pain is a huge motivator. You’ll amble towards something nice, and you’ll run hell for leather away from something that genuinely scares you.

I’m not daft enough to dispute that. I’ve read Maslen’s big book on appealing to the lizard hind-brain, and I know the importance of hitting those primal urges. But what about the segment of an audience who won’t just give in to the caveman instincts?

The voters who swing an election, or the clients who push your turnover past your yearly target. What about those?

For those, I’m about to nail my colours to the mast.

For those clients on the fence, it’s time to ditch Project Fear, embrace spin and find a middle ground.

You’re Not a Terrorist. You’re a Compromiser

So here’s where we’re at. People have tuned out from Project Fear, but fear is still a motivator. People think they want positivity, but they’re motivated by pain.

Short of linking pain and pleasure like a very scary potential client I once had to turn down (picture below unrelated), what can we do?

We can wrap that fear in positive messages.

Project Fear’s problem is that it’s all doom and gloom. Your fag packet is a nag. “Buy life insurance because you’re going to be dead soon and your kids will be destitute if you don’t” is just a massive, massive bummer.

But what about if we spin that fear around? If we wrap the pain of “ohshitohshitohshitohshitI’MGONNADIE!” in something a little more aspirational?

If we replace “DOING THIS MAKES YOU DEAD” with “Don’t bother lighting up, you’ll live longer?”

I don’t know about you, but I think when the alternative is being outright ignored, it’s time to find a compromise.


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