Fear, marketing and a pandemic

Dalibor Šumiga Behavioral marketing/Neuromarketing, Marketing

King Louis XI was a big fan of astrology. His astrologer predicted that one of the court ladies would die in the next 8 days. When the aforementioned lady did indeed die at the predicted time, the king decided to execute his astrologer because he saw two potential dangers in the death of this court lady:

  1. The astrologer is an unscrupulous killer who decided to commit a murder just to fulfill his prophecy
  2. The powers of the astrologer are so great that his existence endangers the king himself

One evening, the king invited the astrologer to come to a room high in the castle and ordered his servants to enter the room at his signal, grab the astrologer, and throw him out the window down the walls.

When the astrologer arrived at the meeting place, King Louis XI decided to ask him one last question before sentencing him to death: “Tell me, since you claim to know everyone’s destiny, what will be your destiny and when will you die?”

The astrologer replied, “Your Majesty, I will die exactly 3 days before you.”

From that day on, the astrologer was cared for and pampered until the death of King Louis XI, whom he eventually outlived for several years.


Can fear be a motivator of change? Bri Williams gives very specific advice on how to use fear as a motivator. Here’s her advice:

To overcome fear, give them….

  • Nothing to fear if they DO take action
  • Something to fear if they DON’T

What does this look like in the examples?

Example for “Nothing to fear if they DO take action”



Example for “Something to fear if they DON’T”



But the fear-based marketing in the second example where the goal is to “scare” the customers if they don’t take a certain action is not as simple as it seems. The context of your message is very important. The example I gave was not necessarily effective (I have no data on the results of the campaign) although we cannot deny that it is very creative.

The reason why campaigns like this can have bad results, I described in the blog “60% of marketers will read this blog” – if most people do not wear helmets, why would you wear them?

Therefore, the message provides negative social proof of behavior.


We can’t avoid the question of how effective fear-based marketing can be in an era of a pandemic?

Sure it can, but here too the context is at stake.

First of all, Covid-19 is invisible to the naked eye and it is much harder to communicate a problem if your target group cannot experience it with their senses.

The second problem is that, despite the fact that it is a highly contagious virus, it is not a virus that kills anyone who comes in contact with it. Of course, I checked – the chance of me dying from Covid-19 is about 0.4%.

Such statistics put us in a situation where a large number of people do not have the impression that the disease is present. You can see this pattern of behavior in the comments on social media below any news about Covid-19; the most common comments are: “where are those infected people, why don’t any of them report on this, I don’t know anyone who has died or contracted coronavirus…”


Finally, communication between responsible politicians, epidemiologists and the media can also be a big problem. Despite good intentions, the fact is that they are not experts for communication, but medical professionals. Where is the problem in their communication?

First, we need to remember the famous sentence that Stalin allegedly said: “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” I’m not saying we need to show the bodies of the deceased from Covid-19 or reveal their personal details, but the fact is that we get scanty numbers every day that means nothing to the majority of the public. What do you look at first, if you look at the data on the daily number of infected people at all – how many of them are in your city / your surroundings. The more specific and relevant the information is to YOU, you will pay more attention.

Another big problem is fake news or true information, but taken out of context. The best example is the issue of wearing masks. At the moment when the recommendation that masks should be worn started, a large number of internet users pulled out a video from March in which a leading man of the Institute of Public Health says that masks cannot help.

And here the problem lies in – education…


Health professionals cannot expect the public to be at their intellectual level and must be aware that some things need to be explained as if you are talking to a small child and that you need to repeat those same things over and over again.

In this particular case, it is not sufficiently explained to the public how science works – science continuously questions everything we know, experiments and seeks new and better solutions. Yes, a few months ago we weren’t sure if masks helped spread the virus, meanwhile scientists have come up with new insights.

We used to think that the earth was a flat plate, that the release of blood helped in healing, that the whole universe revolves around the Earth. Science has proven otherwise. The same patterns are repeated in this pandemic – we experiment, learn and adapt.

And I will end this blog with another story…

The Plague was on its way to Damascus and overtook the caravan in the desert.

The caravan leader asks The Plague, “Where are you hurrying to get to?”

“To Damascus. I am going to take 1,000 lives, ”replied The Plague.

On its way back from Damascus, The Plague passed the caravan again, and the caravan leader said, “You took 50,000 lives, not 1,000.”

And The Plague answered him: “No, I took 1,000 the rest was taken by Fear…”

Ruth Gendler says, “Fear has a large shadow, but he himself is small.”

In this uncertain age, what your customers least want is uncertainty and ambiguity. Use fear by showing them that when it comes to your brand, they have nothing to fear…