It's 3 am… Do You Know Where Your Fear Monger Is?

Move over Reagan’s bear and LBJ’s mushroom cloud — there’s a new symbol of fear-monger marketing in town. Clinton’s “red phone” ad, which ensures death at the hands of her opponent if he’s elected, is a new low from an old play book. After all, it was crafted by expert scaremeister Roy Spence — the same guy who made Walter Mondale’s “red phone” ad against Gary Hart in 1984. Clinton’s ad may have buoyed her through Texas and Ohio, but we all know that Mondale was left holding the phone in the general election.

This new ad juxtaposes America’s children sleeping safely in their beds while a persistent and perilous phone call goes to the White House, promptly answered by Hillary, who hasn’t even slipped into her presidential PJs yet. The voiceover’s curt insistence that the call should be answered by “someone who’s tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world” is a classic example of marketing by fear.

Fortunately, we can all breathe a sigh of relief because Hillary’s video is more cheesy than caustic. Check out the crop of parodies on YouTube — my favorite touts that you should vote fro Hillary because “she wears pantsuits at 3 a.m.”

As a PR professional, though, it’s not the ad’s authenticity that “scares” me (after all, a retired general did tell Hillary “I guess you’ve been at that bedside when the phone rang at 3 o’clock in the morning” in an MSN news clip). Instead, it’s the use of fear and panic as marketing strategies that has me shivering at night.

Marketing, political or otherwise, is meant to move its observers to action through positive and compelling messages. All this ad tells me is 1) The “red phone” will ring and 2) If Obama gets elected, we’d all better run for cover. Even more unsettling is this tactic’s perceived potency — Rohit Bhargava explains in his Influential Marketing Blog that “in our society of fear, it is no surprise that fear marketing is becoming so widespread, and even more disturbingly, that it works so well.”

However, marketing by fear can only work for so long. It’s like a Berlin Wall of media spots — eventually the most charismatic figure of the day (or in a pinch, David Haselhoff) will inspire the masses to knock it down.


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