Advertising and Commercials: Using Fear and Scare Tactics to Sell

About advertising and commercials and how they play on consumers basic fears, a possible solution to the problem is offered.

In April, 1973, CBS News, in a most heretical but heroic program entitled "You and the Commercial," broadcast the most eloquent statement on the manipulative aspects of advertising. The accuracy of the program was clearly demonstrated when the fulsome kingpins of unfairness and deception, the advertising industry, attacked the program as being unfair and deceptive. The commentary of Dr. Erich Fromm particularly raised the hackles of the admen. In noting the use of fear as an important selling tool, Dr. Fromm said: "This is very apparent in all the deodorant ads; fear of body odor and all that. But in a more subtle way, the general fear of not being loved and then to be able, by some product, to be loved. That's a subtle fear pervading most people, and the ads speculate on that and show, in more or less drastic ways, here are the things which will make you loved. All that is sought to [play on] these unconscious fears."

Dr. Fromm quickly cut through the illusionary devices of the advertisers, and came up with a comment on the junkie syndrome so prevalent in much of advertising today. He said, "The 2nd thing which struck me was the concept of the miracle. The miracle drugs. Something, some type of miracle, will happen with the consumption of the product."

Conspicuous consumption did not evade Dr. Fromm's perceptive eye either. He noted, "The general theme is: Love is dependent on a gadget. And this is a very potent theme in our whole modern life: the expectation that not human power, human effort, not being, but gadgets create the good life and that there is no limit to what a gadget can do."

Dr. Fromm also noted Dr. Shainess's 1st and 3rd guideposts in these comments. "I would say that our ads, by and large, tend to misinform the reader and not to make him think rationally, but irrationally. . . . Advertising tends to make a person greedy, to create the man who wants more and more instead of trying to be more and more. Thinking--rational thinking, critical thinking, independent thinking--is undermined."

The U.S., as both an exporter of material goods and culture, has other developing countries to look to in order to see the microcosm of advertising's negative social value repeating itself. In September, 1974, Nippon Cultural Broadcasting, Inc., published a report entitled, New Directions in Japanese Consumerism. In analyzing Japanese society in the postwar period, the report suggested that during the '60s, Japan went through "the era of desire for possessions." The report states: ". . . from the viewpoint of industry, this period was an age of mass production, consumption, distribution, and communication. Through mass media advertising, especially the power of TV and the adoption of American marketing strategies, manufacturers conducted widescale sales campaigns to combat competition, endeavoring to occupy the largest share in the market. During this period, consumers never doubted the advertisers' claims."

So what is the citizen-consumer to do? He 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 gangrape 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 wolfmen, but it appears that only knowledge and awareness are the antidotes for our 20th-century monster, advertising.

The Author: Edward A. Merlis works for the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, and devotes much of his time to advertising legislation.

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