It's around midnight as I write this and I am just back from a late dinner with a friend. Before we started to have dinner, my friend insisted that I use a hand sanitiser. While I have nothing against people trying to be squeaky clean all the time, but the smell of a hand sanitiser really puts me off and can even make me sneeze.
Given that, I refused to use it. “How can you not use a hand sanitiser before eating?” she asked.
“Well I have washed my hands,” I replied. “But that's not enough,” she insisted.
“Why not?” I asked. “Because a hand sanitiser kills all the germs.”
“What germs?” I asked, ripping into the tandoori chicken.
“Ah. End of conversation. Guess cleanliness isn't really your thing!” she exclaimed at my ingratitude.
The idea of using hand sanitisers has caught on (especially with women) after the recent global swine flue scare. But does it really help? As brand management expert Martin Lindstrom writes in his latest book, Brandwashed – Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, “Neither swine flu nor SARS can be prevented by the use of antibacterial cleansing gels. Both viruses are spread via tiny droplets in the air that are sneezed or coughed by people who are already infected. ”
In fact, as Lindstrom told me in an interview,“What’s ironic is that none of those products...actually do any better job than soap and water.”
That being the case, why are women so in love with hand sanitisers? Says Lindstrom in Brandwashed: “The idea of an unseen, potentially fatal contagion has driven us into nothing short of an antibacterial mania.”
And companies making hand sanitisers have simply captured this mania as a profitable money making proposition. In his interview to me, Lindstrom said: "The companies have done an extraordinary job in building their brands on the back of the fear created by those global viruses – indicating that we’ll be safe using these brands...The ironic side of the story, however, is that the life expectancy in Japan is decreasing for the first time in history – why – because the country simply has become too clean – the Japanese have weakened their immune system as a result of overuse of hand sanitising products.”
What this little story tells us is that fear of something happening (or not happening, for that matter) is a great selling strategy and you can't argue with a woman who has made up her mind.
As Lindstrom put it, “we’re all hardwired to be seduced by fear – fear is the number one soft button in our brain, it is a survival instinct. Fear is used by most insurance companies and even Colgate who claimed in one ad that they could remove the risk of cancer by the usage of their toothpaste.”
The fact that fear is a great selling strategy makes companies build it directly into their advertisements. The advertisement for i-pill, an emergency contraceptive pill, shows a mother telling her daughter "Kyun risk le rahi hai?" when the daughter calls and hints that she has had unprotected sex.
Or take the case of Saffola oil, which has run a highly successful campaign over the years on the fear of a heart attack. It used to run an advertisement for years showing a man being wheeled into the operation theatre, with the sound of the ambulance siren in the background (Okay, I'm not immune to fear. Let me concede I also use Saffola oil for cooking).
Fair and Lovely, which claims to be a skin lightening cream, has run on a plank of the fear of rejection for a "dark" girl. This despite protests from several quarters. The advertisement for the health drink Complan is built around the fear that those not having Complan will not grow as tall as those having it.
Almost every insurance company uses fear as a selling strategy. This can vary from the fear of death, to the fear of not having enough money to meet hospital bills, to the fear of not having enough money for the son's or daughter’s education or not having enough money for the daughter's wedding and so on.
As Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason university in the US, writes in the book, Discover your Inner Economist: "Often, buying insurance is about investing in a story about who we are and what we care about; insurance salesmen have long recognised this fact and built their pitches around it."
Having given these examples, let me concede that some of these advertisements do push consumers towards buying the right product. But most of these advertisements are misleading. Business Standard recently reported, “Whether it’s Complan or Horlicks, they claim to make a child taller and smarter. But their promises are not based on any scientific data....Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury, minister of state for health and family welfare, informed the Lok Sabha in a written reply on November 30 that the food regulator had begun prosecution proceedings against manufacturers of 19 leading brands and issued show cause notices to 19 others for making false claims regarding the nutritional value of the product in advertising and on the label.”
As the story further pointed out, "Complan, a leading drink brand, claims it makes children grow twice as fast. Horlicks promises to make children “taller, stronger and sharper”. Kellogg’s Special K claims people who eat low fat food in their breakfast tend to be thinner than those who do not, without providing any scientific study to back this claim. Products like Saffola oil, Rajdhani Besan and Britannia Vita Marie biscuits have been booked for making false claims of being “heart-friendly” and “reducing cholesterol”.”
All these products play on the fears and insecurities of consumers. If my kid doesn't drink Complan/Horlicks he won't grow tall. If I don't eat Kellogg's Special K, I will become fat. And if I don't have Saffola oil I will have a heart attack.
Lindstrom summarises this phenomenon very well in a paragraph in his book Buyology – How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy is Wrong: “That if we don't buy their product, we''ll somehow be missing out. That we'll become more and more imperfect; that we'll have dandruff or bad skin or dull hair or be overweight or have a lousy fashion sense. That if we don't use this shaving cream, women will walk by us without a glance...That if we don't wear this brand of lingerie no man will ever marry us.”
Politicians are looking to do exactly the same thing when they practice the politics of fear. The recent debate on FDI in big retail had Sushma Swaraj saying things like “Will Wal-Mart care about the poor farmer’s sister’s wedding? Will Wal-Mart send his children to school? Will Wal-Mart notice his tears and hunger?”