Advertising through Anxiety

Advertising  was  largely  built  on  the  fine, opportunistic  strategy  of  trading  in  human weakness. For almost 100 years, advertisers have honored these three points:

  1. Pinpoint a problem, perhaps the one which the consumers didn’t even know they had 
  2.  Worsen anxiety around the problem

Whether it’s being laughed at because you have small muscles or can’t play the piano, not being respected because your car isn’t prestigious enough, not being desired because you have hairy armpits, not being cool because your phone isn’t the latest, or not being a good mother for oh – so – many reasons, advertisers sure know which button to push. But not all advertisers require quite so much of us. Dove simply suggests women need to shave their armpits in order to attain enlightenment. No, Dove say, it’s not them creating the problem, it’s them solving it: according to research cited on Dove’s website, 93% of women think their underarms are unattractive and thus may refuse to wear sleeveless clothing. So if the desire for un-natural armpits hasn’t been caused by images published by beauty advertisers like Dove, Advertisers, through this use of shame (which is of course a kind of anxiety), have changed our views,and our world. Before Listerine figured out it could sell more of its anti-septic as a cure for bad breath,there simply was no social stigma attached to it.

How  many  billion  dollars  has  this  strategic breakthrough yielded? How has this improved our lot as a race? Research has refined the use of anxiety as leverage to encourage purchase. A study of commercials for the kids – food brands found no fewer than five kinds of anxieties being prodded: anxieties linked to the responsibility for providing healthy food to support a child’s physical growth; anxieties associated with the responsibility for providing appropriate nutrients to foster a child’s intellectual development; anxieties linked to the social exclusion of a child from his/her peer group; anxieties raised due to repeated conflicts about food  intake that may threaten family bonding relationships and mothers’ anxiety for not being present enough for the child due to their own busy schedules. The rich pick for these ‘negative’ ads, for sure.The multi-billion dollar question is: do they work better than the positive ads? Entire books and literally mountains of ad research has been done on this question and the answer, like that to many complex questions, is probably ‘it depends’. For us, this dilemma cuts to the socio-cultural responsibilities that advertisers and marketers have, but so rarely acknowledge. Think about it: if all those fear-inducing ads has instead used more positive messaging, would we as a global community, have amassed such an overwhelming state of anxiety? And if we hadn’t,

How different would our world look to us? Has the wealth reaped by Listerine and tens of thousands of marketers like them been worth the problems now so prevalent in society? Think.

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