Monday, May 11, 2009

Marketing fear

One of the legacies of 8 years of a Bush administration has been a focus on fear. Every morning the news tells us what color our level of fear should be today. We're taught that we're under constant threat, though they usually can't tell us where, how, or when. We're supposed to be afraid at airports, and to go one step further by pointing out anything supsicious to the nearest TSA agent. To some extent, I understand this, as no security force can watch everyone at all times. Nor would the average citizen want that, as many of us value our privacy and independence just as highly as security. On the other hand, that same mentality has been used before with horrific results.

The Nazis told German citizens to watch their neighbors, keeping an eye out for collaborators or sympathizers. During the Red Scare, Americans were told the same: to keep an eye out for signs your friend or coworker was in league with the evil communist enemies. In both cases, even the allegation was enough to land someone in the hot seat, prison, or worse. We rounded up 110,000 US citizens and placed them in our own version of concentration camps, all because they had Japanese ancestry and were related to the wrong people.

So what got me focused on all this fear mongering, you ask? Well, it's not a new idea to me, but it was driven home over the weekend. We were watching a commerical for the EcoCanteen, which is essentially a metal water bottle. There are certainly some good reasons for such a product - less waste collecting in landfills, lower cost since you're not paying for packaging, etc. The other primary point in the ad is that plastic water bottles release toxins which can be harmful to the drinker.

But mentioning that isn't enough. The ad shows a mom packing lunch for her kids, and then reiterates that toxins are present. The message seems clear: if you don't buy this product for your children, you're a bad parent. You're poisoning your children, you idiot! It then goes one step further...showing an emergency room in the beckground of the ad. Now I don't know about you, but I haven't heard much on the news about hoards of folks being rushed into the ER for water bottle toxicity.

At what point does drinking water become akin to playing russian roulette? And more importantly, when did it become okay to terrify people into buying something? Most of my friends joked about buying generators for Y2K. Most also laughed when the news reported that sales of gas masks, duct tape, and plastic sheeting were skyrocketing. In the end, this isn't that much different. "There's something horrible out there, and only our product can save you. Be afraid!"

To me, it seems there ought to be a law about such things. Truth in advertising. Public interest. Causing a panic. You know, stuff like that whole "yelling fire in a crowded theater." Fear has become a cornerstone of our American lives. The economy, nukes in Iran or North Korea, swine flu...the list goes on and on. Personally, I spent too many years living in fear while in the closet, and I'm not inclined to spend more years doing the same because of something else - especially plastic water bottles.

Today's lesson: Pay careful attention the messages being blasted at you, whether from an ad, a reporter, a friend, or family member. What's at the core, and what strategy are they using to win you over? Think for yourself, and don't give in to fear, extortion, etc.

No comments: