Marketing Fear

June 17, 2008 by

2008_06_11turnorburn.jpgSeth Godin addresses a topic particularly pertinent for the church–the marketing of fear. He tells a little story where he got an offer for insurance against invasion, carjacking and other scary things humans do:

I got a note from Rob McGinley at Chubb Insurance today. Not a note, actually, but an official envelope, with the extra touch of bold red writing on the top of the official looking letter. Chubb, it turns out, is happy to sell me insurance against home invasion, carjacking, etc. The $110 a year includes coverage for psychiatric care and “reward money leading to the apprehension of the perpetrator.”

He was less than happy. He took it as fear mongering and overstepping an ethical line. But how does his aversion to fear marketing translate to the church, which has commonly marketed fear? To many people, you could substitute terms to say something like this “The free gift of God includes coverage for life’s troubles and worries, as well as eternal protection from the fiery furnaces of hell.” But is this fear marketing a good way to go?

Let’s point out a couple differences first.

  • Carjackings, invasions, etc. are relatively uncommon, while most Christians believe hell is a fairly common fate.
  • The $110 is generally translated as free salvation, or at the least, an immaterial investment in good behavior.

It’s obviously different from Seth’s example because the stakes are much higher. And the return on investment is at best massive, or at worst, a little below break-even. But the consequences of branding God as a giant, scary dude eager to roast humans in the eternal campfires of hell are also pretty bad. So how do we market something that’s honestly a little scary without triggering an aversion to fear?

Prayer and caution. Unfortunately, there’s no perfect cost-benefit analysis. There are some people peeking around every corner for what might go wrong who are eager for protection against it. There are others whose heads are in the sand and never know trouble until it hits them. In reality, only a full gospel that explains both fear and love is one we can market successfully. And whether “Turn or Burn, Happy New Year,” is the case or not, we should probably be a little more tactful in saying it.

Post By:

Joshua Cody

Josh Cody served as our associate editor for several years before moving on to bigger things. Like Texas. These days he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, and you can find him online or on Twitter when he's not wrestling code.
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10 Responses to “Marketing Fear”

  • Andy Wood
    June 17, 2008

    Equally disconcerting would be the cheesy stuff that makes light of some serious issues or truth. I’m thinking of that bad church sign that says something like: “Eternity – Smoking or Non-smoking?”

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  • David
    June 17, 2008

    Soft selling sounds good on the surface.
    Marketing is done that way all the time.
    Deodorant – fear of smelling bad.
    Teflon skillet – fear of sticking.
    Organic food – fear of chemicals
    Hummers – fear of the SmartCar.
    Mac – Fear of the unknown/crashes.
    Its hard to come up with something that doesn’t imply the downside by emphasizing the upside.

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  • Ed Eubanks
    June 17, 2008

    Why are we worried about fear? In the case of the gospel, the fear is very real, and any attempt to communicate the perils of hell are likely to be an understatement. “Fear” in this case is an appropriate response, as in “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” We are right to fear the Lord’s wrath and judgment, and right to communicate the need for such fear to our people.
    (Of course I’m making an assumption: you do believe in a real, actual hell in accordance with the Bible, don’t you?)
    Now, Seth is right in one sense: fear-marketing in a circumstance or manner in which the fear is not a likely reality– or overplaying the “fear” side for the sake of closing the deal– is wrong and maddening. He’s right that there is an ethical breach, but it’s not because “fear” itself is wrong, but mis-use of fear tactics is. There are plenty of things (not of eternal consequence) that we are right to fear: drunk drivers, house fire, natural disasters are a few examples that come to mind. Awareness through fear in these cases is good and reasonable.
    And I’ll agree that your ideas (above) are right in one sense, as well: we mustn’t ONLY feed our flocks fear. At best, we’ve failed to instruct them with a solution to the problems that we fear the consequences of; at worst, however, we’ve taught them legalism, undermined their sense of assurance of salvation, and thwarted the truths of the Gospel of grace.
    But don’t tell me “fear” is wrong. That’s an overstatement on the same order as what Seth was reacting to.

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  • Dave Bohorquez
    June 17, 2008

    Fear is way overused in marketing in general, and the church specifically. Preaching a message of love and acceptance will attract more people to the church. People are used to being condemned by “religious zealots.” There is not enough genuine compassion in most peoples lives, and if you take the time to build a relationship with them, they will be attracted like moths to a flame.

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  • mike hosey
    June 18, 2008

    Preaching the reality of hell is different than advertising it on a church sign, or in a brochure, or in a t.v. or radio spot. Preaching or teaching allows for an in depth look at a complicated reality like hell.
    It must be preached about.
    But in general, it shouldn’t be done in the “turn or burn” way of that church sign.
    I’m a columnist for my local paper, and I broached this topic not too long ago — as well as preached a sermon on it. Here’s the column:
    Let me know what you guys think.

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  • mike hosey
    June 18, 2008

    Sorry, here’s the full link to the column without all the http www stuff:
    Mike Hosey

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  • bob
    June 18, 2008

    Accomplishing any goal by inflicting fear in someone doesn’t seem to be long lasting. Kids who are raised with a “I better not do that or else…” mentality rarely keep to those standards.
    I remember a verse that says “its His kindness that leads us to repentance.” Not to suggest that we should ignore the reality of Hell, but maybe to realize that scaring people into a relationship with Him was not His intention.

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  • Antwon Davis
    June 18, 2008

    Interesting post.
    Many people buy into the “fear” tactic. But, eventually the fear wears off and you are left feeling rather stupid for falling into the punch.
    Take the big Y2K scare… Everyone racing to their local Wal-Marts and convenience stores, stocking up on water, non-perishable items, and tissue. Sad to say, there was no big economic meltdown as was expected. That left many Americans with a basement full of items that they are probably still using up today (lol).
    My point is: Once people are over the over the “turn or burn” gimmic, they either lose interest in Jesus Christ or question their faith altogether. I agree that we must deliver the whole Gospel; not our own man-made gospel that will get us good alter-calls, but no true conversions to Christ.
    God sent Christ because He “loved” us… not just so we could escape Hell.
    T H I N K | C H A N G E

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  • Brice B
    June 20, 2008

    I turned or burned when I was 8. I am now 33 and have been living for the Lord ever sense. Fear of hell saved me then, and it never wore off. I matured and grew, yes. But it got me going, and I have no regrets.
    Would you prefer I was never offered fire insurance?

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  • Jim
    June 25, 2008

    Someone once said that “the fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom”. No wonder there is so much foolishness among (so called) Christians in our day.

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