I’ve been insistent that everybody needs to pay attention to politics now, which is being conducted with greater cynicism than technology marketing ever could be. But in this particular post, political and technology marketing (among other kinds) are compared on a more even basis.
- Articulated voters’ fears.
- Stoked those fears relentlessly.
- Claimed that he “alone” could fix things.
- Won the US presidency.
This is actually a time-honored pattern, pursued by (among others):
- Many other demagogues and authoritarian leaders.
- IBM in its industry-dominant heyday.
- Consumer marketing companies over many decades.
- Several of the world’s great religions.
While fear-and-fix is a powerful strategy, it’s not easy to pull off, because it involves establishing both sides of a partial contradiction:
- There is a terrible danger that is very hard to prevent.
- I can in fact prevent it.
Approaches to resolving this paradox typically fall into one or more of three buckets:
- Overstating (or entirely fabricating) the danger.
- Overstating (or entirely fabricating) the fix.
- Understating (or just downplaying) the costs of the solution.
Let’s consider some examples.
1. Modern Republicans excel at stoking fears among US voters, about threats as diverse as:
- Christmas-cancelling local ordinances.
- Transgender bathroom rapists.
- Evil Muslim terrorist immigrants.
But fear-and-fix is a long-standing, bipartisan strategy. Two of the more famous examples in US history, bookending the Eisenhower Administration, were:
And I still haven’t figured out what Wall Street is doing that Bernie Sanders is so upset about.
2. Starting in the 1960s, IBM perfected sales messaging along the lines:
- Computing is crucial …
- … but scary-hard.
- If you buy from us, things WILL work.
- Our gear is reliable.
- If you buy everything from us, it will all work together.
- We’ll provide whatever services are needed.
Ulrich Weil is credited with labeling this strategy as FUD — Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. The phrase stuck.
There was a lot of truth to that FUD messaging, and IBM was well-nigh unbeatable as a result. But things changed (although many accounts are true-blue IBM loyalists to this day). What happened? In a nutshell:
- Alternatives to IBM became “safer”. IBM was always ahead, but its lead — and the importance of its lead — lessened.
- This wasn’t just technology. People simply became better at dealing with the vagaries of IBM alternatives.
- The extra cost paid for IBM “safety” seemed increasingly prohibitive.
Of course, these dynamics aren’t IBM-specific; they play out all over the enterprise (or possibly-enterprise) IT market to this day.
3. Fear-and-fix messaging was also a huge part of consumer mass marketing, right from its beginning. Patent medicine sellers — aka snake-oil salesmen — offered bogus cures to real or imaginary ailments. Eventually, the marketing mantra became “Find a need, and then fill it” — but “Find” was often changed to “Create”. For example, long-tolerated hygiene challenges were repositioned as intolerable embarrassments. One late and great example is the long-running, somewhat self-mocking Ring around the collar campaign, in which one narrow laundry-washing challenge supported a detergent’s whole brand identity.
Consumers are now more cynical than they were in the past, and better informed. Claims that are repeatedly proven bogus eventually lose their ability to persuade. Still, fear-and-fix remains an important strategy in areas where disproof is somehow difficult, for example in the political and religious arenas.
4. Speaking of politics and consumer marketing, there’s a wonderful fictional example of fear-and-fix. Please see the first few seconds of the following clip, which is the lead-in to a famous — albeit horrifically unmelodious — song, “Trouble in River City”.
5. As for religion — well, some of the oldest pagan religions seem to have focused on preventing natural disasters, droughts and so on. The efficacy of those solutions was generally oversold.
In more recent millennia, religions have offered to solve various post-death difficulties. Some of those claims are dubious as well.