Selling From the Dark Side: Is Fear-Based Copy Morally Wrong?

Male lion attack huge buffalo bull

In the copywriting class I’m currently teaching (the now-closed Copywriting Academy), one question has come up several times during our Q&A sessions. The question is posed a little differently each time, but is accurately summarized this way: “Is it morally wrong to sell based on fear as a motivation?”

This question comes up because part of the framework I use to teach copywriting involves the Principle of Amplification. In this section of the training, I teach that once we have identified the problem we are solving for our customer (with our product or service), we must then Amplify the consequences of not solving the problem. We are, in effect, helping the customer to understand the cost of not buying our solution. All of this proceeds from the assumption that your product or service actually does solve a problem, and that not solving the problem actually does involve a cost.

Is Selling Evil?

Each time I teach this material, a few students recognize that the Principle of Amplification does in fact evoke a certain fear-based response in the heart of the reader. The question they are asking is: are we wrong, as copywriters, to “exploit” the fear in a person, to even amplify that fear, in order to get them to buy our product or service. Isn’t that manipulation? (For the record, I believe manipulation is wrong. I have written and spoken elsewhere about the difference between persuasion and manipulation.)

For the purposes of this article, let me sum up my position in this way: using illegitimate fear to induce a purchase that is not in the best interest of the customer is wrong. Using legitimate fear to suggest a purchase that is in the best interest of the customer is absolutely right.

What is the Difference Between Legitimate and Illegitimate Fear?

Legitimate fear is our body and mind’s response to a real and present danger to our health, wealth, or well-being. Or to the health, wealth, or well-being of those we love and care about. If your child is about to step out in front of an oncoming truck – shouting at them, causing them a moment of fear, so that their senses are heightened and they realize the danger they are in, is a legitimate use of fear in their best interest.

Their body and brain are instantly changed in a way that may well save their life. This is not hyperbole. There is biology at work here.

The “fight or flight” response has gotten a lot of bad press in the last few years. But the “fight or flight” response is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. This response is part of your body’s natural defense system, designed to keep you alive.

According to Dr. Henry S. Lodge, in the book he co-authored with Chris Crowley, Younger Next Year,  “When the lion jumps out from behind the bush, adrenaline floods your bloodstream … and hundreds of other chemicals, too, in a surge that changes the activity and biology of virtually every organ and muscle in your body. Two things happen. Your emergency powers-physical strength, visual acuity, and mental focus-jump to their maximum intensity …  Your brain abandons long-term thinking and the development of long-term memory or higher cognitive function and focuses exclusively on the present. … in life or death situations, every scrap of energy and every effort swings from long-term to immediate, from infrastructure to survival.”

Nothing wrong with that – if you are being attacked by a lion.

Lots wrong with it, if it is knowingly invoked to sell you a $1,000 vacuum cleaner.

You see, it is a bad thing is when the “fight or flight” response kicks in outside the presence of real danger. This is at the root of the life-destroying “stress diseases” from which large segments of modern society suffer: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, ulcers, and arguably things like heart disease, diabetes, and even perhaps some forms of cancer.

Some illegitimate stimuli which trigger a false “fight or flight” response: fears about a meeting with the boss… fears about what the neighbors will think of your junky car… fears about whether your appearance matches that of the fitness models on the cover of magazines. These fears are not stimulated by life or death situations. They are not the same as the lion that jumps out of the bushes, intent upon making you his dinner. And here is the important thing to remember: your body does not know the difference. Neither does your brain.

What Does All This Have to do With Copywriting?

Everything, it turns out.

If, as a copywriter, I invoke a real and legitimate fear in order to induce people to take an action, one that is in their best interest, I am morally in the right. For instance, if I am writing copy that convinces the reader to take better care of their physical body by eating well and exercising regularly, and I do so by showing them the consequences of not taking that course of action (the results being diabetes, heart disease, stroke, early and debilitating death and illness, etc.), I am writing persuasively in their best interest.

If provoking a little shot of adrenaline results in the reader putting down that doughnut, and choosing to eat an apple instead… Or results in them getting their butt out of the chair, and taking a 30-minute walk, then fear has served its proper function.

I don’t think anyone would argue with this.

If, on the other hand, you write copy that constructs a convincing but false argument about a fanciful “economic apocalypse” that is a complete fabrication on your part, designed to evoke fear and cause the reader to sink their hard-earned money into a risky and marginally ethical investment scheme… If, in other words, you’re evoking the fear response, flooding their body and brain with chemicals that put them in “fight or flight” mode, so that they are more suggestible to your sales pitch… you have crossed the line. You have moved from persuasion and into the dark territory of manipulation, where you are writing in your own best interest, with total disregard of what is best for the reader.

In other words, writing only to get the sale, regardless of what that means to the customer. Regardless of whether it is in his or her best interest.

“So Is It Okay to Use Fear In My Copy … or Not?”

I often hear a question similar to the one above when I teach on this subject. The students who ask it are not lazy – they just recognize that answering the question requires work – it requires thinking. On the part of you – the copywriter. This is not work for dullards. It is hard work… work requiring moral discipline and total, naked honesty with yourself.

But because I know the above paragraph will prove to be infuriatingly obtuse to many of my readers, here is my answer:

I propose that not only is it “okay” to use fear in your copy to cause your prospects to take an action that is in their own best interest, but it is part of your responsibility to do so.

However, using illegitimate fear, and using artfully constructed but ultimately fantasy-based conspiracy theories and logic chains designed to make your prospects fearful, so that they will buy your questionable product… that is clearly wrong.

Like any tool or emotion, fear is morally agnostic. Morality only comes into the picture when a human agent steps in with an agenda for its use. Fear motivates behavior. You can use it to produce truth or lies; life or death. Choose life.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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7 thoughts on “Selling From the Dark Side: Is Fear-Based Copy Morally Wrong?

  1. Heeey Ray…interesting post you have made here. To all of what you’ve shared I’ll just say when we Love people our Love for them is at the Heart of their best interest. Everyday we live and interact with other humans on this planet…we say things and sometimes we do things…where our only intention is to do them good. For example I had a friend once who I worked with…there were only three of us working with the start-up company at that time. Because I care about people and I truly cared about her…one afternoon while at lunch I shared with her some information no one knew was going to happen. I knew our company was going to move and she was going to end up losing her job. So that afternoon I revealed this information to her in hopes of giving her a head start on looking for a new job before she lost this one…and to my surprise…she told me that she would have rather that I not told her. Because she would have preferred to face the unknown…than to know…and now be afraid of having to figure out what to do. This story reveals a lot about the current existing state of FEAR…and how no matter what we do even when our desires and motivations are driven out of Love…we can not Control these FEARS…we did not Give Birth to these FEARS and many times we are not even Fully Aware of How these FEARS…Rule and Control and Dominate the lives of peoples. So knowing what I know now…(and I am a lot more advanced on human behavior than I ever have been)…Would I still tell her what I told her (even understanding that what I would say would stir up her existing fear?) my answer would be Absolutely Yes…Why? Because my motivations were out of LOVE and Concern for her…my motivations were not out of HATE or to do her harm but to give her a head start and prevent her from being two weeks away from losing her apartment or not being able to pay her bills while trying to make ends meet on unemployment. I didn’t Create her FEARS…she Created that. I was just attempting to give her a Jump-Start into the Future that would save her a lot more Pain than the FEARS she had been Cultivating in her life. Our goal in this life is to LOVE people…if we can Save them Greater Pain & Destruction in the Future by helping them to see the Present “More Clearly”…I’d rather cause them a little discomfort now than to see them have Greater Discomfort later on. It’s like a doctor showing you a diseased lung from smoking too much…will that stir up some FEAR in you? Sure it will…Will he get paid for going in to operate to remove part of the problem?…Sure he will. If you stop smoking and add an additional 10 years to your life will that benefit you and your family? …Sure it will. So what’s the problem?

  2. Thanks Ray ! A very welcomed post! From houses to cars (yes cars) to product parts incorporated into assembly of a larger one and others there can only be truthful information provided. If not you will ‘sell yourself’ out of customers and need to go dig ditches! I’ve sold one thing or another since I was in third grade! I have an old saying which I will paraphrase … Basically, I know we’re always right but maybe we should check just to be sure!! Hope the week is wonderful for you and yours! Again thanks for the post and sending prayers as usual!

  3. Heeey Ray…Thanks for your kind compliment and you’re sooo Welcome. I’m just trying to deliver value on an already Brilliantly written post by you. If there is anything else I can do to SERVE You…please let me know.

  4. Excellent article Ray. It also made me think how I came to the Lord in 1985. I had a woman tell me I was going to slide into hell in handbasket because I was basing my entrance into heaven on works and not grace. I was terrified and got saved. That was fear based marketing at it’s best. Praise God you tell it like it is:)

  5. Hope is the belief one can change ones environment for the better. Despair is its opposite. Both are emotional states triggered by how one percieves their environment and assesses their resources.

    Unfortunately for those who persuade its impossible to know how close someone is to giving up. It’s rare to meet a copywriter that sees the parallels between what they do and bullying. Create a vivid enough sense of missing out for someone unable to take advantage of an offer and you may just push them past their tipping point.

    The power to compel an emotional reaction in a fellow human being is awesome. One must always use it responsibility.