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Marketing Insights: Fear factor

Fear factor


Experts say that if you wish to brainwash someone, you
must first create in them a state of fear, followed quickly by
introducing the means by which they might alleviate that fear. It’s an
A + B = C sort of approach.

Experts say that if you wish to brainwash someone, you must first create in them a state of fear, followed quickly by introducing the means by which they might alleviate that fear. It’s an A + B = C sort of approach. Hitler, Charles Manson and about every cult in existence have utilized this strategy to get groups of people to follow them down clearly deviant paths.

It occurs to me that many successful marketing campaigns follow this same sort of logic. “Gee, I’m not measuring up + luxury car = I’m a worthwhile person.” If a fearful consumer is fertile ground for an effective marketing strategy, then today’s market must be Shangri La and food consumption is the perfect breeding ground for a fear-based economy. The question is: where do we draw the line between addressing the fear and creating it?

There’s nothing wrong with fear. It’s as Martha says – a good thing. Fear and its kissing cousin, anxiety, steer us away from things that may do us harm. Pioneer psychologist, Abraham Maslow, developed his “hierarchy of needs” in the mid-twentieth century. Shaped like a pyramid, it’s divided into sections illustrating that our animal needs, such as food, shelter and safety, reside at the bottom whilst our spiritual needs, like belonging and self actualization, sit at the top. In other words, we can’t worry about the Kumbaya stuff until we’re comfortable that we have something to eat and that nothing’s eating us.

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It makes sense. And it may seem that today’s thriving societies would all be “self actualizing” – after all, food is plentiful in our neck of the woods and there aren’t any saber tooth tigers stalking our neighbourhoods.

Many sociologists contend that our security needs aren’t being met. We used to grow our own food, then with the industrial revolution, we worked for others, drawing a wage that allowed us to buy security. It’s thought that with today’s corporate downsizing and competitive labour pool (due to a glut of baby boomers), we’re feeling quite insecure about providing for our families. Throw in an aging population, starting to feel its aches and pains, and top it off with a terrorist attack or two and you’ve got yourself an anxiety cocktail.

All of this anxiety needs to find something to fixate on and our food supply is as good a place as any. After all, the act of ingesting food is all about absorbing something separate from us into our bodies. Every meal is a leap of faith and our ever-attentive media is eager and willing to cater to our fears.

The term “food scare” first appeared in the media in the mid-eighties following the malicious tampering of Tylenol capsules with cyanide. At this point in history, the media focused its attention on what happened and how products might be made tamper-proof in the future. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 made us realize that government incompetence could actually result in the poisoning of our food supply. The media had found a new role – watchdog.

Our access to 24/7 newscasts via the Internet and “news only” stations like CNN can overemphasize fears in our minds. When the same news headlines are repeated over and over during the day, it has somewhat of an amplifying effect on our emotions. It’s brainwashing at its finest. Reuters Business Briefing database confirmed that media reports using the term “food scare” escalated from 213 in 1996 to 1,435 in 1999.

Consumer concern doesn’t extend only to contamination caused by natural disaster or acts of God – increasingly, society is questioning the role of science in our food supply. Even Doctor Frankenstein believed he was doing a noble thing when he cobbled together the best of several human beings into one monster of a science experiment.

Scientists who create hardier types of wheat by genetically modifying foods are presumably doing so to facilitate a more consistent food supply for the world. It leaves us wondering, if nature made it one way and we monkey with that – what’s it going to do to us when we eat it? The question is a valid one, but consumers aren’t comfortable that the assurances they’re receiving from government are worth believing. This cycle of mistrust has put increased pressure on food manufacturers and foodservice operators to supply information to soothe consumer concerns on food safety.

Make your operation bulletproof by diligently addressing all concerns raised during inspections. More and more municipalities are posting food safety inspection records of local restaurants on their website. In many areas, this information was only available by making a request through the Municipal Freedom of Information Act, but increased public demand for this information has prompted the “outing” of many records.

Operators are concerned that non-critical infractions such as a loose tile may result in a restaurant being painted with the same negative brush as those with critical infractions, such as a broken refrigerator. It will be vital for the foodservice industry to partner with local politicians to ensure this information is managed appropriately as it is shared with the public.

It’s apparent that “food scares” are here to stay. Media attention and mistrust of those managing our food supply are factors not to be changed overnight. Look for ways to communicate your commitment to food safety. It may be as bold as a sign or as subtle as a sparkling establishment. Remember, brainwashing works best when the message is repeated over and over.•


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