'Tis the Season to Be Fearful: Confessions of an Ex-Ad-Woman (Part 1)

Being a therapist is not too different in some ways from being a copywriter, when you think about it. It's all about understanding people, their motivations, habits and triggers.
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It was a long time ago. I was young. I was writing for Madison Avenue, hobnobbing with celebrities, going to parties. It was as far from a meaningful life as I've ever been, but it was the 1980's, Reagan was president, we were selling and everyone was buying. Life was "good."

Then one day I got an ad order for one of the firm's big clients. They were pushing a new diet pill that would expand in the stomach and fool the person into feeling full so they wouldn't eat. I read the marketing stats carefully. Their targeted audience was young, female and anorexic.

I don't know what made me suddenly so sensitive or intolerant of such an obviously necessary strategy -- who else would you sell a diet product to? -- but I got angry. And in a pique of rebellion I hurled my typewriter against what I felt to be a nasty injustice and sealed my fate when I submitted an ad with a picture of the little expanding pill and a headline that read: Fat Chance.

Needless to say, they never ran the ad.

Not too much later I was enrolled in graduate school for social work.

Being a therapist is not too different in some ways from being a copywriter, when you think about it. It's all about understanding people, their motivations, habits and triggers. What I do with it now, however, is very, very different than what I used to do. And what I'd like to do is share what I know about advertising so you can become selectively immune to it. Consider this a mental, psychological and emotional vaccination. And an act of contrition for me.

What Marketers Know About You and How They Use It

Everyone knows that sex sells. It has been a truism for hundreds, more likely thousands of years. The Romans knew it, the Greeks knew it, snake-oil salesmen on the American frontier knew it and we thought we knew it. Instead of talking about the mechanical superiority of their latest cars, manufacturers hired the sexiest, perkiest breasted young women they could find to writhe, lean and lick their lips next to their new products. Hard-bodied young men have gazed with sleepy-eyed sensuality at the camera to sell everything from Mediterranean travel to vacuums. It's been the American way since America's had a way. Sex was the King of Madison Avenue, the number one guarantee at the cash box, the Great Motivator.

Until now.

Because the number one seller is no longer sex. It's fear. What marketers know is that Americans are afraid. And they'll do anything to make that feeling go away.

So what does Madison Avenue do?

What any self-respecting ad man does: utilize the fear to motivate a purchase.

The evidence is all around us: We're bombarded with rapid fire holiday ads designed to make us worry and buy. And what do these purveyors want us to worry about? Everything -- what we eat, when we eat, what we wear, when we wear it, who we touch and what we can catch. And the sooner we worry the better. The "self-improvement" ads that ordinarily start January 1st now start airing on December 26th. Why wait when you can panic about a few extra pounds now? And what better season than this one? What better spirit to celebrate Christmas and New Year's than the spirit of Panic Present?

The message is the same everywhere. Be afraid. Be very afraid. We hear it from the newscasters we watch in the morning as we get ready for work, we see it in the ads tucked between talk shows, we read it in the magazines left for us in the waiting room at our doctors' offices. By the end of the day we've been slipped about a hundred different fear mickeys.

The holiday season has a special sort of viral fear that gets added to the mix of the usual doomsday, global warming, code red, "It Could Happen Tomorrow" programming. At this special time of redemption and renewal we get to fear the flu, unsightly blemishes and weight gain, loneliness, collagen loss, not being invited to the big parties, alcoholism and early onset Alzheimer's, not to mention fallen meringues, sagging breasts and cervical cancer if we don't get the vaccine now. Anxious about how anxious you are? Great. They're selling a pill for that, too.

Viral fear pops up on your home page, too. And while you're looking at the ads for Apocalypto or scanning the news blurbs about the new nuclear proliferation don't let your eyes glaze over. Look at them. Really look. See what they're really selling and what in you they're really talking to.

In her study on fear in advertising, Lynn Kennedy profiled a billboard of Sammy Davis Jr. that looked like a tombstone. Next to a withered, sunken likeness of him was his date of birth and date of death. The headline read: The tobacco industry made him history. Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of Americans as much as cancer. Many can't even say the word itself and instead call it "the big C."

Pharmaceutical companies, "natural" food suppliers, vitamin manufacturers and home improvement specialists (air purification systems, for instance) work that fear with ruthless efficiency to scare us into buying whatever it is they're selling. The entire insurance industry is based on promoting and profiting from fear.

Prudential has based its whole campaign on the notion, "don't wait till it's too late." They implant the gloomiest, most heart-wrenching imagery possible of the consequences for not having life insurance. Act Now, they implore us so sincerely. Before it's too late.

And it works. People buy things they don't really need and walk around worried about all the things they can't do anything about. They fret about the things that might happen if they don't apply this cream or take that pill or sign that form. They pace anxiously considering the things they're not doing that they have been told they ought to be doing and ponder all the diseases, catastrophes and losses they might suffer because they've been negligent.

What Happened to Americans?

How does this happen in a country as comfortable and as technologically advanced as this one? It seems that when it comes to viral fear America's immune system has been systematically suppressed over the last sixty years, primarily since The Cold War. Why are we responding so predictably to the fear mongering?

According to a 1995 study by Horowitz and Bordens, it was found that people use what is called "central route processing" when they encounter a message that is personally meaningful. So, say a 45-year old woman is brushing her teeth in the morning, looks up in the mirror, sees some crow's feet and then sees a television ad that holds a prune up to the camera as the announcer tells her: "Are you afraid you're going to wake up one day and see this in the mirror? Well you don't have to if you buy our product!!!"

Odds are that our 45-year old woman will find that message relevant. Odds are that she will already have had certain feelings and beliefs about aging, feelings, by the way, that are very obviously a byproduct of acculturation and value distortion. Our society as a whole rejects aging and on the value ladder places sexual appeal way over wisdom, grace or purposefulness. Horowitz and Bordens say that within that context she will then create a context of the image from her ideas and beliefs and be more predisposed to believe that their product will save her from the natural effects of aging.

And, here's the awful irony -- according to two other experts (Pratkanis and Aronson) the more frightful the advertising, the more effective in stimulating anxiety but not in stimulating a positive action. If the message produces fear but doesn't offer a specific recommendation to reduce or deal with the perceived threat, people don't respond. They just walk around unconsciously anxious. Happily for the marketing departments of the world, in western culture anxiety of that nature normally translates into sales of some kind. When people are uncomfortable in this country, they look for something to buy. And anything will do so long as it's new and distracting and they don't have to actually process their discomfort.

So, what are Americans really afraid of? They're afraid of terrorists, of course. They're afraid of attacks just like we were in 1954. These are all the obvious ones. But we're also afraid of germs, of erectile dysfunction, of not being successful, of robbers, of child abduction, of Alzheimer's, of not having enough, of not being enough, of too much intimacy, of too little, of AIDS, of failure, of sunspots and solar radiation, of global warming, of dishwasher spots on our glasses and e-coli on our spinach. And we're always worried about sex.

The greatest danger as I see it is that even when we use sex and scandal to sell, we're still using fear to close the deals. The American limbic system has been mutated so that now fear, violence and sex have been fused.

Advertisers are smart. They do this because they know that Americans are really afraid more than anything else of not being attractive, accepted or loved. We are afraid of ourselves, of being alone, of stillness, of our own mortality. We are a nation of addicts (food, work, image, drugs, drink, sugar) and culturally we love to believe in miracle cures. We don't feel good about ourselves, we take a pill and voila! We are new creatures -- vibrant, trim, clear-skinned. We don't have friends coming to our house, so we buy a new couch or a new plasma TV and we imagine the house is suddenly filled with loving neighbors toasting Amaretto to our continued success. We believe in Gadget Gods. Gadgets bring love, long life, good health, new friends, better jobs, clean lungs, big muscles and long-lasting on-demand erections. And don't forget: The newest gadget cures best. So hurry! If you don't act now, there might not be any left!

Viral fear has capitalized on our culture's weakest point -- our urgent need for the quick fix. Viral fear encourages irrational thinking, greed and conformity, while it undermines self-worth, independence, connectedness with others and, worst of all, faith in God and a higher meaning in life. The tragedy from my point of view is that America's greatest gift to the world has been its courage, its work ethic, its doggedness in the face of adversity, its intrepid willingness to stand up to bad guys and bullies, and its inspirational inventiveness. And for a country that was born of faith and the fearlessness of millions of people crawling, paddling and begging their ways here so they could be free to now be a country paralyzed by magical thinking and benumbed with viral fear is heartbreaking.

This is what Edward A. Merlis said way back in 1975 when he worked with the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and devoted much of his time to advertising legislation:

He [the American] is bombarded at every flip of the magazine page, at every turn of the TV dial. Can he be proud that we now export our form of mental gang rape to the people of other countries? Advertising is a science, designed to attack people's weak spots in order to sell a product. Wolfbane may have been the antidote for vampires and wolf men, but it appears that only knowledge and awareness are the antidotes for our 20th-century monster, advertising.

He was right, of course. Knowledge is power and awareness can be life-changing not only in terms of what you're willing to buy, but what you're willing to swallow.

Knowledge may not be absolute power but it sure as hell packs a punch.

Stay tuned for more on this topic.