The Fear Factory

As a poor purchase planner, I am anxious at the best of times in supermarkets… unless it’s one of those giant French ones where they sell kayaks as well as cheese. I love those places. My wife drops me off at the back of the shop at the “Sea World” section where I will watch the live octopuses and lobsters for a good half hour. Then I find a quiet aisle and try out a skateboard. Then I lurk around the deli bit trying out the free meaty samples, and I will point at random sausage type offerings and hazard a “petite” whilst making the universal index-thumb “small” sign. Finally my wife will find me, and my collection of petite bags, trying on a wetsuit. Now that’s shopping. But today at my local supermarket, doing the Friday big shop, I got freaked. As a natural hunter gatherer I don’t do well unless I have to wrestle the life out of my food, or club it into submission. Choosing stuff, and of course the pressure to choose wisely, means I have to actually look at lots of the options available, and make on the spot evaluations, and eventually the correct decision. And that is when I become uncomfortably aware that the modern supermarket is really ” The Fear Factory“.

Fear has always been one of the main tools that maintains society and citizenship. It’s almost as if a state of perpetual fear is part of the fabric that binds a culture. Particularly within “Western” cultures, this fear has been twofold: a fear of those above your station, or more likely your bog standard fear of “the other side”. Fear is a historical constant, but if we consider the modern post war era, the fear space was filled by nuclear war, the iron curtain and the menace of communism…. and for the Eastern Bloc, a straight visa versa. 1989 saw the wall tumble and its fear factor fade. Something had to fill the void and the fear space was passed on to imminent economic ruin, the potential collapse of trade, economic meltdown. But then international trading agreements arose, common markets, European Unions, G5’s and relative stability. The fear market had to diversify, and 3 fear factors have filled the niche: environmental crisis, fundamental terrorism… and the most scary and personal of them all… your health and wellbeing. You need to be “healthy”. You are told this and “educated” about this constantly by the biggest wheels and smallest cogs of our society. Government, industry, retail, media, marketing, scientists, practitioners…. and, if I am honest, me. We feed your need.

I want to be one of the good guys. I want you to be healthy, but I don’t want my message to contribute to your anxieties about the need. But some of the other guys aren’t so bothered… particularly “Big Retail”. As I mentioned above, fear is a reliable tool, and Big Retail knows this. Big Retail uses fear as sales leverage, and it does this via “The Message”.  And The Message is ever more present, more pervasive and more persuasive. The message should be a simple honest punt like… “buy me and you will be more healthy”. But The Message doesn’t really come over like that. Big Retail needs to  create a bit of fear, so it uses a subtle slant, and constant bombardment. The Message that Big Retail has engineered into your life is… “if you don’t buy me you will almost certainly be less healthy”. That is different, and it has fear factor.

The Message is everywhere. In advertising, marketing, and on packaging.  It can be unsubtle and forthright, but it can also be restrained. Often it comes in the form of a snippet of advice, or seemingly important product information.  There is so much of it that you think you don’t notice… until you do notice. And then it seeps in. Once it’s in, it starts doing its work.

On Friday I realized this whilst selecting some cup soup (I dare not put the vowel between the cup and the soup for litigation reasons… the fear runs deep). To help me with my choice I noticed one of “The Messages”. As you can see, one soup has less than 1% fat, and the other is low in saturated fat.

Now I am sorry but we all know that cup soup is essentially edible dust that you pour boiling water over to sterilize it, and dip stale toasted bread into when you have hit a lunch time supplies low point. They are strictly emergency rations, and at no point do you purchase them with any consideration for their nutritional value. Big Retail doesn’t see it that way though, and doesn’t want to market it to you that way either. It knows that it is effectively packaging you the sweepings up from under a student’s sofa cushions, but it is brazen enough to feed you a little “Message”. Low in saturated fat! What a bonus. So essentially it’s good for me. I’ll live longer. Give me two of those sawdust shakes.

That’s how The Message works. The little info-bites create a cumulative shift in your perception of what you are purchasing. The deliverers will use specific tactics within the context of the message. Science is a favourite tactic.

Take the bubbly soapy stuff above. As you can see it is for sensitive allergo-colourant moisturists who need protection, but look a little closer and you can see it is pH balanced… which is a powerful micro-message and huge subliminal relief for me. I am a man of science and if my bubble bath isn’t pH balanced I know it can only go one of two ways…. too acidic and I will lose several layers of dermis and exit the bath ready peeled… too alkali and my complexion will become bleached down to that of an old school dish cloth. Luckily this one is balanced. How it is balanced, which bias, how high volume dilution effects the balance, and how interaction with other products influences the balance is neither discussed or a problem… because it’s balanced. You should look out for the “balanced” word, it is extremely popular within The Message. Here is an example:

This cat food is “balanced, and it is also “100% complete”. I take heart from a company that is prepared to sell you a cat food that is 100% complete…. as opposed to say 80% complete… the type where you have to mix up your own jelly, or food dye some of the biscuits green. That’s a bit of a faff. That’s one of the things with The Message, quite often it is grammatically incorrect, in-consistent or ambiguous. Or in this case nonsense… because this cat food can also “tone muscles”. I know a wee bit about training and I can tell you that eating biscuits does not tone muscles… even complete biscuits. This bag of biscuits could only “tone” a cats muscles if you tied it round its waist and made it drag it around for a few hours.

One of the tools Big Retail uses to worm it’s message into your purchase history is imagery, particularly with a sciencey slant. Below is a picture of another cat food which also has beneficial health effects upon your mouser (remember, it’s not just your own health that you should worry about… GET IT). I want you to imagine you are playing Pictionary and you draw a card that requires you to produce an image that portrays “Healthy Urinary Tract… in a cat”. Off you go, you’ve got 60 seconds. Fun eh? But that is exactly what the graphic designer has done here, and it’s genius to be fair. Next up you pull the card “High Nutrient Absorption”… that’s got to be impossible. But look what they have done. Zoom in and you will see some loops of intestine, what  I presume are nutrients floating around outside, then a nice big bit getting in at the top, and the nutrients changing colour I guess to represent absorption. Astounding work.

Certain products are simply designed for The Message, like toothpaste. You need toothpaste. I mean some earthy folks may use ground sunflower husks soaked in organic eucalyptus oil as an alternative, but I am guessing you are not one of them. Selecting a toothpaste is difficult. Big Retail has decided they should come in categories, flavours, age groups, and “science” groups. Get it wrong and you’re going to have a smile like Shane MacGowan. So they help you out with a bit of messaging like this.

That’s basically a Powerpoint presentation on a pack right there. And it’s been developed by dentists, as opposed to plumbers. The type of dentists you see on TV toothpaste adverts with great hair and lovely Irish accents, and who look suspiciously like the lady who was an extra in Call The Midwife last week.

This next one is a proper fear tickler. You all will have seen it, and depending on where you are reading this I reckon many of you could go find an example in 20 seconds.

Can you see the jokers in there. 99.99%! That’s just cheeky. Imagine the marketing team meeting when they decided to slot in the extra 9 hundredths of a percentile effectiveness. “Shall we, shan’t we… go on… it makes the number look bigger”. I did a wee bit of research on this generic claim, thinking there would be nothing out there, but there is. Google it for pages of fun reading about tosh science, but also check out something called the Log Reduction Value (LRV) for bacterial elimination, which in domestic products is around level 3, but for medical grade applications is usually level  5. You are worried now aren’t you. You should be… I mean what about the 0.1% your Toilet Goose isn’t killing. They must be hardcore nasty pathogenic  brothers of Ebola and are clinging to your flush handle right now.

Relax, it’s just fear marketing. I’ll tell you what the 99.9% percent thing really is. It’s a DISCLAIMER. Nothing more. The products do kill most stuff, be it germs or kittens. But there is always a chance of something being missed. So if you use their product, insist on licking the toilet seat, and end up with a runny tummy… tough, they warned you.

The final category I want to draw your attention to whipped me into a Friday frenzy and was the trigger for this blog. It is the most pernicious of all The Message techniques. It preys upon a specific purchasing group and sex, and you may be one of them. And to be frank, I really do not like it.

With the example above the Five A Day thing is already doing a brain worm on you. Big Retail thinks you can’t argue with something like Five A Day. You can, but I won’t bother because what comes next is so unpleasant. It’s the “70% of mums approve this product”.  There it is. Yes they have starred it and signposted you to their stores Nutritional Guidelines, but I am guessing most mums will be a bit too busy to read them on their big shop afternoon. It is the 70% thing. They are subtly screaming to mothers… Look after your kids. Do it. Be like the 70% who take care and do it right. Don’t be one of the 30% of slacker mums. You should know better. DO IT RIGHT.

This specific message will pop up all along the store. Here is another example. Not only is this baby bath paediatrician approved, but it has a far more prominent and influential provider of a seal of approval. Mumsnet has achieved some remarkable things, but I think its moderators and contributors should carefully consider their Quality Approval procedure. Once it has been granted Big Retail is sure to slot it into The Message, the pressure, the fear. What is that message really saying? Is it much different to the pear preaching?


It is definitely best to be healthy, but it may not be healthy to be constantly reminded of it. Big retail wants to shift product by shifting your perception of that product. A pear is a pear. You know exactly what it is, and what it can do! When it comes to pears you don’t need to be told to do the right thing, and you certainly shouldn’t listen if you are.