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October 26, 2016

Cindy Penchina, President

Scary Clowns, Marketing, and You

2016 has certainly been a year, hasn’t it? Considering this vociferous, vituperative election season, the only thing that could make this year even stranger would be a rash of terrifying monster clown sightings.

Well, 2016 delivered.

We couldn’t have a Halloween-season rash of UFO sightings or even a panic over the traditional Dracula. Nope, we got ourselves a nationwide outbreak of scary clowns. However it started – incidentally, in Greenville, South Carolina this past August – it has spread with an upsetting rapidity to as many as twenty states and even to Germany, has led to thirty arrests, and one honest-to-God stabbing.

Something’s going on here. But what?

People have been speculating that it’s everything from a viral marketing campaign for the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT to an immersive fiction alternate reality game. But the simplest explanation is also the most compelling: it’s an idea that has suddenly taken hold. Whether that means it’s all a bunch of hogwash or there are actually some genuine creepy clowns out there (or even just people dressed like creepy clowns to scare people, which I suppose is essentially the same thing), well, that remains to be seen – but really, it’s not important.

Because in either case, there is a valuable marketing lesson to be learned: the reason it’s spreading is because fear is a powerful thing.

Now, I’m not saying that your marketing needs to be spooky, because that’s just about a movie aesthetic more than anything else. But honestly consider why people love Halloween and horror movies; we’re all riddled with anxieties and worries and fears that it’s good to let out now and then, to allow to seep to the forefront of our consciousness.

So what does any of this have to do with marketing?

Nothing motivates faster than fear.

Think of the basic fight-or-flight instinct; when something you perceive as a threat to your survival shows up, you are compelled to take immediate action in the name of self-preservation. The basic question is how much of a threat it is before you decide, but the calculation is immediate. You land on a solution to your problem – the terrifying monster clown running toward you brandishing a meat cleaver – and take immediate action: you run.

And this is a basic impulse you can take advantage of without actually scaring the bejeezus out of your customers; you don’t actually need to spring out of a trashcan at night in order to provoke them into making a purchasing decision. You just have to remind them of what they’re already afraid of.

Think about, for example, Listerine. Listerine has, for the last eighty years, built its marketing on a single basic fear: that people will judge you. Early marketing campaigns for the brand focused on telling people that everyone was talking about them behind their back because their breath was so stinky. By stoking social anxiety – a mild, persistent fear – they built their entire empire. Deodorant does the same thing, as do women’s beauty products: reminding people how much they fear social approbation, and selling them a pre-emptive solution to allow them to remain part of society.

But fear-based marketing doesn’t actually have to be that nefarious, and we use it all the time. If you sell safety equipment, you don’t simply want to say “We sell construction helmets and rubber gloves;” you want to remind people of why they need these things, and in doing so, create an emotional association with the act of purchasing. “I don’t need construction helmets just because; I need them to keep my workers safe and healthy.”

And politicians do it all the time; even absent sleazy campaign commercials (“My opponent wants to literally jail babies. Is someone who imprisons infants right for Maine?”), major legislation often gets through by reminding others of the negative consequences, which can range from the eradication of the wetlands to a lack of party support during the next congressional primary. Fear, in short, impels action.

So. Let’s concretize this for you.

Most businesses don’t just sell a product; they sell solutions to a problem. Because everyone has worries. They’re worried that they’re going to find bedbugs in their apartment. They’re worried they’ll lose their job. They’re worried about the extinction of the bumblebee. They’re worried that they’re putting on weight. They’re worried they’ll get taken for a ride by shady real estate agents. They’re worried their infant is going to get sick. And what these worries are, at heart, is fears of a bad thing happening, or that a bad thing continuing unabated. They want protection. They want ease of mind. They want to feel safe.

And whatever your product is, it’s a solution to something. And that means there’s a motivating fear attached to it.

Let’s look at something as basic as hand soap. It’s a commodity, largely differentiated by scent. One hand soap is about the same as any other. But there’s a powerful motivating fear you can highjack: you don’t want your child to get sick because your hands are dirty.

Now, you never actually say that. But you can do just about everything but. Real-life marketing that would make use of that as a motivating fear would be using imagery of babies with the phrase “antibacterial,” showing a child surrounded by images that evoke filth and ill-health (insects, for example) and lots of phrasing around “keeping your child safe.” And all of that surrounds a very real, very concrete benefit; cleanliness does reduce your exposure to bacteria, which can reduce the spread of infectious diseases to children.

So what you’re really doing is picking a reason why people need hand soap – and hammering it home.

The key is to make sure you’re using fear ethically; everyone can smell sleaze a mile away. Don’t bring up irrelevant fears. Don’t lie. Don’t imply something is far worse than it is. Take advantage of real fears that might motivate action and use them appropriately to their size and severity; nobody is going to respond to “You are a bad parent who is literally killing your child by not purchasing Dove hand soap.” It’s ridiculous, overstated, and borderline insulting.

But don’t neglect it. It’s one of the most powerful tools you have, and is extremely versatile; even saying “sale ends at midnight!” appeals to the fear of missing out. Wield fear well, and you’ll find some of the best and most effective messaging you’ll ever have.