It's been the American way since America's had a way. Sex was the Great Motivator of Madison Avenue. But not anymore.
Because the number one seller is no longer sex. It's fear.
Especially during the holidays.
When I was a very young copywriter at Ted Bates in New York City we were all taught about the Unique Selling Proposition or U.S.P. It was the one thing we had to identify in the client's product that made it unique, memorable and desirable to the consumer. Then we were told to hype it so it was engrained in the American consciousness like an iconic archetype. And in those days we did as we were told. We interviewed and discussed and held up the product to the light at different times of the day to see what it was that made it special. Now, if the advertising is any indication of the board room mandates, creative teams are being asked to find out what makes the product something the consumer really, literally can't live without.
The only way to convince someone they can't live without something is to make them worry. The consumer has to be made certain that there is a threat so magnificent that if she does not have this or that product she will surely succumb, her life will never be the same, she will lose her hair, her spouse, her sensuality or her children.
On a regular basis we are bombarded with rapid fire marketing specifically designed to make us worry. And what do these purveyors want us to worry about? Everything "" what we eat, when we eat, what we wear, when we wear it, who we touch and what we can catch. And the sooner we worry the better. The "self-improvement" ads that ordinarily start January 1st now start airing months before. Why wait when you can panic about a few extra pounds now? And what better season than this one? What better spirit to celebrate Christmas and the New Year than the spirit of Panic Present?
The message is the same everywhere. Be afraid. Be very afraid. We hear it from the newscasters we watch in the morning as we get ready for work, we see it in the ads tucked between talk shows, we read it in the magazines left for us in the waiting room at our doctors' offices. By the end of the day we've been slipped about a hundred different fear mickeys.
I call this Viral Fear. It's spread all year, but the Christmas season has a special sort of viral fear that gets added to the mix of the usual doomsday, global warming, code red, "It Could Happen Tomorrow" programming. At this special time of redemption and renewal we get to fear the flu, unsightly blemishes and weight gain, loneliness, collagen loss, not being invited to the big parties, alcoholism and early onset Alzheimer's, not to mention fallen meringues, sagging breasts and cervical cancer if we don't get the vaccine now. Anxious about how anxious you are? No problem. They're selling a pill for that, too.
Viral fear pops up on your home page, too. As you scan for the news of the day, keep your eyes open to the advertising. Look at the pop ups. Really look. See what they're really selling and what in you they're really talking to.
Pharmaceutical companies, "natural" food suppliers, vitamin manufacturers and home improvement specialists (air purification systems, for instance) work that fear with ruthless efficiency to scare us into buying whatever it is they're selling. The entire insurance industry is based on promoting and profiting from fear. Prudential has based its whole campaign on the notion, "don't wait till it's too late." They implant the gloomiest, most heart-wrenching imagery possible of the consequences for not having life insurance. Act Now, they implore us so sincerely. Before it's too late.
There's no doubt that it works. American homes are filled with gadgets we don't need and our hearts are filled with worry about all the things we can't control. We fret about the things that might happen if we don't apply this cream or take that pill or sign that form. We pace anxiously pondering all the diseases, catastrophes and losses we might suffer.
How does this happen in a country as comfortable and as technologically advanced as this one? It seems that when it comes to viral fear America's immune system has been systematically suppressed since the cold war. We have been afraid for years. And what we've been taught is that when we're afraid we can drink hard, drive fast, or go numb by going shopping. When people are uncomfortable in this country, they look for something to buy. And anything will do so long as it's new and distracting and they don't have to actually process their discomfort.