Illustrated By Julia Sadler.
We all remember the line, "I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” It was first uttered in a 1987 LifeAlert infomercial, by a hilariously earnest elderly woman — and it's been repeated countless times thereafter for comic effect. Sure, the acting may have been clumsy, but that commercial stuck with us: It’s a classic example of fear-based marketing for a product that's designed to keep you safe. However, ads for products that promote security aren't the only ones that play on our fears. A study just published in the journal Psychology & Marketing asked: Do ads that use the most elemental human fear of all — the fear of death — make you want to buy what they're selling? And, do they succeed even when that product has nothing to do with death?
These researchers were curious about the marketing applications of "terror management theory," which sounds like an approach to homeland security but actually refers to the fundamental human conflict of wanting to live but recognizing that you will eventually die. It's a pretty grim (and irrelevant) angle when advertising for, say, a magazine subscription. But, the researchers hypothesized that the same force that drove Americans to buy cars, electronics, and even homes at a furious pace just after 9/11 might make us respond to advertising that reminds us of our own mortality — as if Nike sneakers or Longchamps bags are the materialistic salve for our existential wounds. In one experiment, 95 volunteers (67% women) each read two ads, one for a newspaper subscription and one for a company that rents and sells art. These items were chosen because they have no obvious connection with death.
Participants were randomly assigned to read either death-related ads or non-death-related ads for the products. The former (for the newspaper) featured a sample front page with a photo of a coffin and the headline "Fallen Dutch Soldier Buried" next to an encouragement to subscribe to the paper; the non-death-related version featured an announcement about road work. The death-related art ad, meanwhile, depicted a skull, while the non-death-related ad showed an abstract painting.
Through surveys conducted after the ad-viewing, researchers found that volunteers who viewed the death-related ads liked them less but were more motivated to purchase what they were selling — compared to the volunteers who were not confronted with their own impending mortality. The presence of death in ads had no negative effect on mood, however — suggesting that fear of death works "outside of conscious awareness," as the researchers put it. In another experiment, participants viewed ads that actually incorporated their own names, birth dates, and "death dates" (the current year) on tombstones alongside the tagline "How long do you want to wait?" (Uh, YIKES.) This ad was again for a newspaper subscription, and was markedly more successful than a non-death-related ad in making viewers want to buy.
Death-based ads, the researchers write, are "providing consumers with their worst fear and a potential way to decrease this fear in a single shot." It doesn't even seem to matter what the products advertised do: As long as they're triggering the primordial dread of not existing (and offering a materialistic creature comfort to distract and soothe us, to make us feel connected with a brand, or a lifestyle, or with other people who own the same product), they work. The implication that these purchases can be made "for a limited (life)time only!" adds to the ads' success.
Terror management theory holds that when we fear death, we seek to be a part of something larger than ourselves as individuals. And, for better or worse, buying is one of the primary ways we engage with society. Advertisers who capitalize on this for capitalism's sake may be in ethically questionable territory. But, at least we can now be aware of how marketers are manipulating our minds. And, we can appreciate how ironic it is that thinking about death (you know, that time when we all must part with our possessions, forever) only makes us want to "buy now!"