Fear Sells So Sell Fear

Any marketing person will tell you that sex sells. Well, I’m here to tell you that sex doesn’t sell; sex simply gets your attention. After your attention has been aroused, it’s one of the other two primary motivators, or dominant buying motives, that drives you to buy.

Those two dominant buying motives are desire for gain and fear of loss and most salespeople use the wrong one when trying to motivate a prospect to buy. Keep in mind that I’m referring to motivators here, not manipulation. It’s simply a matter of using the most effective tool to get the job done.

Most purchases involve a risk of some kind on the part of the purchaser. It becomes a matter of determining which risk is likely to move the prospect to make a buying decision in your favour. The answer may surprise you.

An Interesting Experiment

There is a now-famous experiment done by two researchers, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, that examines how people make decisions involving risk. The work was done in an area of research known as behavioral finance and the results can be extrapolated to any purchase that involves a risk.

Prior to the experiment, the assumption was that individuals were rational and tended to act in their own economic interest. Tversky and Kahneman found that investors often ignore logic and generally put more emphasis on risk than benefits.

In their experiment they gave a group of subjects the following scenario: Suppose you have been given $1,000 and must choose between a sure gain of another $500 or, alternately, a 50% chance to gain $1,000 and a 50% chance to gain nothing. Another group of subjects were given a different scenario: You are given $2,000 and must choose between a sure loss of $500 or, alternately, a 50% chance to lose $1,000 and a 50% chance to lose nothing.

Interestingly enough, both situations are identical in terms of the net financial benefit to the individuals.

The researchers found that most members of the first group chose the sure gain of $500. A majority of the second group, however, opted for the gamble between a loss of $1,000 and loss of nothing. The phrasing of the question – the fact that one is presented in terms of gain and the other in terms of loss – is what causes them to be interpreted differently.

The conclusion was that people are willing to run greater risks to avoid losses than they are to make gains.

In other words, telling a prospect how much money you can save them isn’t as effective as telling them how much they might be losing.

Using Fear to Sell

The insurance industry has long known the value of selling fear (or more correctly, using fear to sell). More than one insurance agent has said, “What would happen to your family Mr. Prospect if, God forbid, you should pass away prematurely”? (Did you ever notice that no one ever seems to die, they “pass away,” and frankly no matter when I pass away, I’ll consider it “premature.”)

Fear is often used as a sales tool, albeit in a subtle way. Have you ever seen the Michelin tire television advertisement, the one with the baby floating around in the tire? Did you think they were selling babies there? Of course not. What they are doing is using fear (the fear of losing a loved one) to sell tires. After all, you wouldn’t want your family driving on inferior tires that may blow and cause an accident.

Now, I’m not suggesting you go overboard with the use of fear as a sales tool (“If you don’t buy, I’ll slash your tires.”). What I am suggesting is that you use the tool IF it is appropriate to the selling situation.

Putting Fear to Work

Let’s take some examples and see if we can move the emphasis from the desire for gain motivator and shift it to the fear of loss motivator. Keep in mind, these motivators aren’t mutually exclusive and can be used together if the effect isn’t overkill.

Sales training:

Rather than saying, “Your salespeople will be able to close more sales” (desire for gain), we could try, “How many sales might your people lose over the next year if you don’t train them now?”

Financial planning:

Rather than saying, “We’ll be able to save you money on your taxes.” We could say, “Why pay more taxes than necessary and lower your buying power?”


Rather than saying, “Advertising will increase the traffic in your store” try, “Not advertising could lower store traffic and reduce daily receipts.”

Group health insurance plan:

Rather than saying, “It’s important to offer an attractive package to prospective employees”, say, “How many good prospective employees will you lose if you don’t have an attractive benefits package?”

A computer back-up device:

Rather than saying, “This backup unit will store all your important data in case of a problem” try, “A back-up unit could keep you from losing tons of data and days of lost productivity.”

Mat rentals:

Rather than saying, “The proper mat will keep people from slipping on wet floors” try, “The proper mat can help you avoid lawsuits from angry customers who may slip on a wet floor.”

Now It’s Your Turn

Dig up your fact and benefit sheet and see how many of those positive sounding benefits which emphasize the desire for gain can be also reworked into the fear of loss.

Don’t expect the exercise to go easily. Hey, maybe just sticking your product/service in the middle of a Michelin tire might do it. Don’t you wish!

Part of your job as a salesperson is to motivate the prospect to make a mutually beneficial buying decision. Mutually beneficial means good for you AND good for the prospect; anything less is manipulation, not motivation.

So, use all the tools at your disposal, including fear.