Fear Sells, Even If Reasons Are Irrational

Security expert Bruce Schneier is holding his annual movie-plot threat contest, which asks entrants to submit a product that can be sold with fear. It's an illuminating way to look critically at the marketing of fear, he says.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

So are you a big 'fraidy cat? When you hear about something like bird flu, are you the first person Googling to find out where you can find a vaccine or something? Or did that Homeland Security color code chart make your skin crawl? Concerned a piano or an anvil will fall from a skyscraper onto your head?

Perhaps you'd be interested in purchasing anti-terrorism cream, sonic bird repellant, reverse-polarity anti-piano grease helmet? Well, fear sells, even if the fear in question is less than rational. That's one of the ideas behind Bruce Schneier's third annual Movie Plot Threat contest. The security expert has asked readers of his blog to come up with an ad product that sold based on our fears.

He's clearly tapped into something, our fear of fear-based marketing, perhaps. More than 200 entries have already been posted, and Bruce joins us on the line from Dubai, where he's speaking at a hackers' conference. Hi, Bruce.

Mr. BRUCE SCHNEIER (Founder and Chief Technology Officer, BT Counterpane; Author, "Beyond Fear"): Hey there.

STEWART: Hey. So I read this column that you wrote in Wired, and you wrote that security is both a feeling and a reality, and they're different. Is part of what you're saying in this contest is we tend to focus a lot more on the feeling and neglect the reality?

Mr. SCHNEIER: Well, of course we do. We make our decisions based on how we feel. If we feel scared walking down the street, we're not going to do it. We don't check the crime rate and then walk accordingly. We go based around feelings. Our national policy on terrorism is based on fear. And we buy security products based on fear, and marketers know this. It is not new for marketers to tap into our fears. It's sort of an easy way to sell stuff.

STEWART: So what makes one person predisposed to fear and another person not?

Mr. SCHNEIER: Well, I mean, it's going to be a lot of complicated things about who you are, your risk tolerance, how well you know what's going on. A lot of fears are based on not knowing the actual facts. So someone might be afraid of sharks, for example, not knowing how rare shark attacks are, just possibly from seeing the movies.

Or someone might be afraid to fly and not afraid to drive, not realizing the data means that driving is much more dangerous than flying. And a lot of places in the world, we just get security wrong. We worry about the wrong things.

STEWART: So with this contest, explain to me the parameters and the rules, quickly.

Mr. SCHNEIER: All right, so the rules are to come up with a fear and then a product that alleviates that fear. Lots of examples in the real world. You can buy, and I'm not making this up, a wearable personal air purifier, that you can wear around your neck and purify your air.

STEWART: I've seen that one in the SkyMall, I think,

Mr. SCHNEIER: That's right. You can buy a mesh grill to put over your cell phone ear piece to protect against the harmful radiation.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Oh, that one.

Mr. SCHNEIER: You can buy a wrist detector to put on your child that will sound an alarm when it gets wet, in case he falls into the pool and you don't notice. So these are examples of real products, and I was hoping that readers can come up with even weirder ones.

STEWART: Well, we found one of the weirder ones posted on your site, and we decided to make a little radio ad out of it.

Mr. SCHNEIER: I can't wait.

STEWART: This was written by a poster who calls himself Chabuhi(ph). Let's take a listen to something called The House Bag.

DAN PASHMAN: In a world where cars could spin out of control onto residential properties, tear through homes, and kill everyone inside while they sleep, you need to be protected. The answer is House Bag. The instant our wireless network detects an out-of-control vehicle in your area, a protective Mylar shield inflates around your house, preventing death.

One day, a car will possibly collide with your house and kill or seriously startle your family. Protect your home with House Bag. House Bag, because even the improbable is likely. May not allow oxygen to pass through. May not fit all houses. May not be a bag. House Bag. Get housed!

STEWART: What did you think about that ad we made for House Bag?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHNEIER: That's nice. You guys are hired.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I do want to get back to something you mentioned. Because I did read about on your website, that one product - that real product - the turtle wrist band that locks on child's wrist in case they fall into water. One of your posters took you to task for that, saying, hey, you know what? That's a real issue. Kids falling into water. Do you get a lot of flak - have you gotten flack, I should say, for some of your...

Mr. SCHNEIER: Well, I get some. And actually, risks against children is a way you get that pretty much regularly because we are genetically predisposed to exaggerate risks against our children. You know, someone in New York who put his nine-year-old on the subway because he wanted to go home alone, I think from Manhattan.

And she wrote about it in the newspaper in her column and was vilified for it. It seems like a reasonable thing to do to show independence. But we're living in a world where children are really overprotected. So something like the wrist thing you put on in case your child drowns. I mean, it's a real threat.

Well, what are the numbers? How likely is it? Is it a real threat? Or is it just what I call a "movie-plot threat"? Something we can imagine, we can experience in our minds, and we can fear? So be careful of people saying that's a real threat. Where are they getting their data?

STEWART: But isn't fear a little bit healthy? Isn't it nature's way of keeping us out of trouble?

Mr. SCHNEIER: It is, but it's perturbed in the modern era. Fear is how we perceive risks, and when things happen, our fear goes up. So, for example, if there are a lot of tiger attacks in your village, and people talk about that, you become more afraid of tigers.

But because of two things, because of technology and because of the media, things that happen in stories don't necessarily reflect the world around us. So there might be a movie about a tiger, or a better example would be a shark, and suddenly we're afraid of them because we've heard the stories, but they're not real stories. They're made-up stories.

STEWART: You must have had a field day that summer of the shark.

Mr. SCHNEIER: Oh, yeah, that was - but that's the way it goes. These fears come in waves. I mean, think about dogs. When I was a kid, the scary dog was the German shepherd, and then the scary dog became the Doberman. Then the scary dog became the pit bull. And I think there's a new scary dog. Which dog is scary depends on when you grew up. It's not about the data. It's not about the facts. It's about our feelings.

STEWART: So, of the various products that people have suggested in this contest on your website, do you have any ones that you thought, oh, that's pretty creative, I like that one?

Mr. SCHNEIER: There are some very funny ones. And I urge people to go to schneier.com and take a look at them. There's someone that has a product called CCTVME. The idea being that cameras prevent crime, so, if you wear a camera on your head at all times, there won't be any crime around you.

STEWART: That almost makes sense.

Mr. SCHNEIER: That measures how alert the people around you are. Because if they're scared, they're alert also, and if they're not scared, something's wrong. A little more pedestrian, there's a Kevlar mesh for banisters because we know that children are always getting their heads struck in banisters and dying. And you mentioned the house bag, which was one of the ones that I liked. There's also something called Polycrete Gold, which was a spray you can spray on your house.

STEWART: And what does that do?

Mr. SCHNEIER: There's a lot of creative ideas on the site. Someone suggested a DNA protector, because in the future, you can be cloned, and if you're cloned, then your clone could commit identity theft against you because he's you.

STEWART: Well, if you have a fear of black holes out there or poisoned postage stamps, there are solutions for those as well on Bruce's blog. Bruce Schneier is a security expert and author of "Beyond Fear." We'll link to his dangerous products contest from our blog. Hey, Bruce. Thanks a lot.

Mr. SCHNEIER: Hey, thank you.

MARTIN: Hey, stay with us. Next on the show, it was debate night last night in Pennsylvania. Did you know? Did you watch? Did you care? Richard Wolffe from Newsweek is here to talk us through it. Stay with us. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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