Like most copywriters, I have a love/hate relationship with fear.
The psychology of fear has always been a fascinating topic for me. It’s one that is exploited often in the marketing world.
Humans are afraid of a lot of stuff. Afraid that we won’t be successful, afraid that people will laugh at us, afraid that we don’t know what we’re doing, afraid to be alone — you get it, the list goes on.
Fear can be a powerful motivator for both purchases and for action. We create urgency and scarcity for just that reason. When people are afraid they might miss something and be left behind — they buy.
A lot of times we as copywriters do this for their own good. People will procrastinate out of fear, too (what if it doesn’t work? what if I fail at this too? what if I make a mistake?). So as a copywriter, I have to give one fear (fear of missing out) more power than the other (fear of making the wrong decision). Otherwise, people will remain paralyzed even with a solution in front of them.
Fear can make us do and say ugly things, too. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about this week. You see fear being exploited and misdirected every time you turn on the news. We expect it from pundits and politicians. What I’ve seen this week that is most disturbing is not from either of them.
I have two kids. I saw the video of the toddler in the gorilla cage and I read the graphic details of the baby snatched by an alligator at Disney. I also saw the internet backlash.
I’m not going to rehash all the awful, hurtful comments about the parents. The memes. The judgment. The shaming.
But I’m going to try to shed light on where it comes from.
As parents, when we read about a father trying desperately to wrestle his son from an alligator at a resort beach on vacation, our first reaction is fear. We see our baby’s face. Our brain immediately says “Holy shit, what if that was my son?”
But our brains are pretty amazing contraptions. As soon as we have that terrible, awful, terrifying thought, our brain snaps into action. It tries to protect us from that gut-wrenching fear. So it searches for reason. For a way to make sense of it. For a way to not think about that it could have easily been our baby.
So it latches on to something. We read the article and we find the reason. Ah! There was a “No Swimming” sign. Perfect. The brain starts feeding us the ammo we need. We would NEVER ignore a sign like that. We are good parents. That’s the reason this happened. They were neglectful parents that ignored warnings. We are good parents. They are bad parents. This could never happen to me. Now our fears are suddenly transformed into judgement. Judgement is much easier for our brain to handle. We can rest easy now knowing that we are good and they are bad.
Except, it’s not that easy. If we start to self-reflect, that story that our brain concocted to protect itself starts to break down.
We start to think about the mistakes we made. We start to wonder if we really would follow the sign. And that’s where we have a choice.
We can choose to feel empathy or we can choose to cling to our fantastical idea that we are good and they are bad. That our kids are safe because they have loving parents. That nothing bad can happen if you do the right things. And this is the choice you see being made on the internet.
There are two camps — “this could have been me” and “this could NEVER be me.” One has recognized the reality of the world and one has clung to self-preservation. To believing the lies in their own mind that they are better, more loving, more attentive parents and therefore, they are safe.
About 5 years ago, I got a phone call at 8am on a Saturday from a good friend who happened to be out driving looking for garage sales in my neighborhood. My 3-year-old son and almost 2-year-old daughter were standing in the street in their diapers trying to get to the playground down the block.
My clever little toddler had woken up early, let his sister out of her crib, unlocked the deadbolt and knob on the front door (I had no idea he was capable of this) and walked hand-in-hand with her out of the house while we slept.
My children were saved from tragedy by a stroke of amazing good luck.
I can’t in good conscious fall in the “This could NEVER be me” camp. Would I have followed the warnings at Disney? Perhaps. Or maybe, in the spirit of giving my son some beautiful memories, I would have let him dip his feet in the water or play in the wet sand. I can’t say for sure.
And if you dig deep, neither can you.
Understanding why we take certain actions or say certain things makes us better copywriters. Better marketers. Better business owners. And… most importantly, better humans.