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How to Use Fear in your Copy without feeling Icky

Listerine Ad

Let's go back in time.


Sir Joseph Lister was an English surgeon who, in the 1860s, applied Louis Pasteur’s theory that invisible germs caused infection, and pioneered antiseptic surgery. He inspired Robert Wood Johnson and his brothers to start Johnson & Johnson.


He also influenced a doctor named Dr. Joseph Lawrence. 


In 1879 Lawrence formulated an antiseptic liquid, and named it “Listerine” in honor of Dr. Lister.


The surgical disinfectant had germicidal properties without being harsh or irritating, and was initially advertised for all sorts of ailments from cleaning cuts and soothing insect bites to an antidote for dandruff and athletes foot.


The Lambert brothers were sure that their product would sell better if they could find something that would make it indispensable to people. 


They asked the Lambert Pharmacal Company chemist to list all of the things for which the product was helpful. 


One of the items on his list called “halitosis.”  - derived from the Latin word meaning, “unpleasant breath."


Because of its scientific-sounding name, it was framed as a medical condition that required treatment.


And tapping into a social fear where virtually everyone was sensitive about the possibility of having bad breath, the new advert ( the most famous ad campaign showed a weeping girl, with the phrase, "Often a bridesmaid, never a bride.") hit a nerve with the public, and sales took off.


So while Listerine didn't invent bad breath - they did market it.


Fear according to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, is the most primal motivator.


The basic principle is simple: We are more motivated by the threat of losing than we are by the prospect of winning.


Put bluntly as humans we are motivated by fear than hope.


However, using fear in our copywriting can be extremely difficult to get right. Go too far, and you'll risk alienating your audience and being seen as a bully.


Most writers, including myself, have tried to steer away from poking too heavily on pain points. I've often questioned the effect of customers who buy out of fear.


But a recent study and application of fear changed my mind.


A study by Kim Witte identifies 3 key criteria for successful messaging using fear without manipulation:


  • Specify a threat that is moderate to high, not mild to get your customer’s attention


  • Ensure the reader feels they are personally at risk


  • Ensure the reader believes that preventative action is simple and doable  

The aim is to point out a fear that already exists, empathize with that fear, and then remove the pain with your solution.


The shift is understanding how your product or service can genuinely alleviate their pain point, and is in your customer’s best interest.


Step 1/ Specify a threat that is moderate to high, not mild

This step focuses on Knowing what your Customers Want


Take the time to review your customer profile and uncover their concerns.

What keeps them up at night. If the perceived threat is low … your customer won't feel compelled to change.


  • Are they afraid they’re not going to make sales?

  • Are they stressed about their career and feel they'll regret it later in life?

  • Are they worried about their health because of their current lifestyle?


Your copy should identify their fear vividly making it personal to them.


Instead of: Do you feel you’re in the wrong career?

Try: "Do you look back at your career with a smile? Or with regret?"


Step 2/ Ensure the reader feels they are personally at risk

It’s no good simply telling your customer to be fearful.

Specificity is key.


Make your message stand out by:

  1. Telling them what they already know

  2. Showing them what they don’t

Use examples that are recognisable to them - that they easily agree with.


Let’s say you offer recruitment training to businesses.


You might start by introducing the truths about their situation.

"LinkedIn has 172 million users"


Show them what they don’t know

"But only 12% of users promote themselves to get a job"

3/ Ensure the reader believes that preventative action is simple and doable


This is where you place your offer - how you help make their pain beatable


Position your offer as being different from

a) what they are doing today that puts them at risk,

and b) the products they have tried in the past.

Tips from Smokers

The Tips From Former Smokers® (Tips®)  campaign used fear as a way to encourage people to quit smoking and became their most successful anti-smoking campaign.

It featured real former smokers dealing with serious health problems spawned by their addiction. "For every person who dies because of smoking, at least 30 people live with a serious smoking-related illness." source: Centers of Disease and Prevention

For example, Shawn provides tips on how to live with a hole in your neck.

Amanda, smoked while pregnant and gave birth 2 months early — with her 3 lb daughter spending weeks in an incubator.

Brett, 49, who lost most of his teeth to gum disease by age 42. He takes out most of his teeth on camera.

And while the threat of smoking was considered moderate to high, the campaign faced challenges such as smokers justifying their reluctance to quit by trying to distance themselves from the personal risk ie: “My dad smoked 20 a day for 50 years and never had a problem.”

The smoker may also believe that taking the action needed to prevent the threat is too difficult: “I’ve tried quitting before…”

And so they told stories of illnesses that many people did not associate with smoking such as: Asthma, Buerger’s disease, Diabetes, Gum disease, Vision loss and blindness to tap into the real fear and not just list the facts and dangers about smoking.


You see, when you tell your audience you understand their fears and lead them to a viable solution you gain their trust and become their guide.


Turn fear into a solution

They're not afraid of…

It will happen to them because…

But together we can conquer it!


NB: Listerine's bad-breath campaign was so successful that marketing historians still refer to it as the "halitosis appeal" —meaning using fear to sell a product.


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