The EFF’s fear-based marketing creates little loyalty

Share this...

By Howard Feldman

It might sound like the beginning of a poor joke, but it is quite serious. What do Listerine and The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have in common?

If the answer isn’t apparent, we could add anti-smoking campaigns, tax collection and even the Covid vaccine. All the above use the technique known as “Fear based marketing.”

Marketing expert Cole Schafer has traced the Listerine story. According to Cole, Listerine was originally invented as both a surgical antiseptic and a “fix-all” remedy for an array of ailments ranging from Athlete’s foot to gonorrhoea.

But it was fear-based marketing that eventually turned the electric blue liquid into a massive success. It is a product that today can be found in just about every household in America.

How did they achieve this? They spoke to our fears. They illustrated in cringe-worthy detail what the impact of untreated halitosis might look like. They made their customer worry about something that might not have been a real concern before and they painted the picture of what neglecting their warning could look like.

One of their most iconic ad campaigns featured a fictional character named Edna who sadly paid little attention to their warning.

As a result, Edna was sad, unmarried and – as you might have guessed – was plagued by Halitosis.

The ads depicted her sitting lonely while another woman (with fresh smelling breath) danced with the man of her dreams. 

The message was obvious. Ignore Listerine at your peril.

Before embarking on this campaign, the makers of Listerine had tried to focus on dentists and on the value of reducing germs. With little to moderate success. It might have made intellectual sense to use Listerine, but the emotional motivation was lacking.

Marketing works on an emotional level. Positive emotional messages motivate as well. We don’t buy a watch, we buy what that time piece makes us feel. We buy products that make us feel like good parents, like responsible citizens or make us think that we will be beautiful and that we will belong.

But it is the negative, or fear-based marketing that sometimes works best.

Enter the EFF.

At time of writing the column, the National Shutdown was not yet over. With some hours to go, the roads remain calm, there have been few reports of mob violence and the day seems to be passing without major concern. The EFF is calling it a victory as many schools and business have shut, whilst police and law enforcement have done the same as there has been little damage to property.

But there has been damage. The EFF campaign spoke to our fears. Schools closed out of fear. Shops and factories closed to ensure the safety of their staff and customers. South Africans were told (through messaging) to imagine July 2021 happening again. They imagined being locked in their homes, being confronted by masses of people and that their factories and shops are being looted.

Twitter played a critical role with the repetition of warnings and painted the picture of the consequences.

Fear-based marketing might work, but it is a risk. Where it might have been successful in the case of Listerine, it very often makes the customer resentful of the brand. A fear-based campaign might encourage people to pay their TV licences and taxes, but they will do so as a “grudge purpose”.

It does not endear the brand and creates little loyalty.

On paper, this strategy might have worked for the EFF, but as the famous adage goes: “People might not remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

No matter how the national shutdown ended, as a result of the EFF’s fear-based marketing approach, there will be little positive outcome for them. No matter what they say, South Africans will long remember how the threats and the intimidation made us feel.