Thought Leadership

Anxiety marketing

By Colin Walls

I guess that everyone has felt anxiety, to some extent, at some point in their lives. For some people, the feelings dominate their lives, which I find quite a distressing thought. However, can anxiety have a positive side? Why did we evolve these feelings if they do not have a use of some kind? …

To start off, I looked up the word in a dictionary and here is what I got:

  1. a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.
  2. strong desire or concern to do something or for something to happen.

I suppose that (1) is what we think of, when we consider what anxiety is like. On the other hand, (2) is rather more positive and we should explore that.

Anxiety is an emotion. Human beings have very complex emotional lives and our behavior can be influenced very strongly by our emotions. There are two contexts in which emotions are commonly manipulated to achieve a result: crime and marketing. [I appreciate that there will be those who say “What is the difference?” at this point, but I will press on …]

Criminals use emotions in general, and anxiety in particular, in subtle ways. For example, an old lady gets a phone call. The caller explains that they want to verify her credit card details to make the charge of $50 for her computer’s virus protection. She is anxious because she has heard bad things about malware on PCs. She also has no recollection of ordering new virus protection, but is aware that she is very forgetful, so this ups her anxiety. Her high anxiety clouds her judgement and panics her into giving her details. The criminals then help themselves to rather more than the $50. This kind of emotional manipulation is used in numerous criminal contexts, even with people who are a lot less vulnerable than a confused old person.

Feeling a strong emotion has an interesting effect: it stimulates the laying down of memories. For example, most people can remember their first ever date – lots of details. This is likely because you were probably nervous, embarrassed, excited – perhaps all of those – and this cements memories. Marketing people [yes, like me – guilty as charged] use this phenomenon. If I am presenting to an audience, I try to evoke some emotion. Anger and fear are not so good, but humor and surprise are OK. My goal is simply to have my message remembered. This effect is so strong that, to a lesser or greater extent, we do it instinctively all the time.

Returning to my main theme, there is a technique called “anxiety marketing”. The approach is that you talk about some technology, for example, and consider all the possible challenges and pitfalls. Most importantly, you identify an issue that the audience may not have seen before. This raises their anxiety. Then, with appropriately careful timing, you reveal the solution – a product that you happen to have for sale. In their heightened emotional state, they are receptive to the idea of making a purchase.

I described anxiety marketing in the context of a technical product, where there is a strong fuzziness between technical information and marketing hype. However, the approach is used in all walks of life. Did you know that you had bad breath, body odor, greasy hair, erectile disfunction … you name it, someone has a solution for you that will lessen your anxiety.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at