Fear this….

Identity theft is a huge problem these days. (Don’t get me started about how social security numbers were never meant to be used as personal identification devices, but that’s another post for another day). But hackers and thieves continue to steal innocent people’s identities to assume fraudulent personas, steal money and generally wreak havoc on credit reports.

LifeLock is a company purporting to save you from the evils of identity theft. For $10 a month, they’ll send fraud alerts to the credit bureaus (even though you can do it yourself for free), and claim to protect your personal information from theft.

CEO Todd Davis is so confident in his company’s services that he deliberately shows his own social security number in all of Lifelock’s advertisements – including TV, billboard and print ads. It’s one thing to believe in your service offering (hey, if you don’t believe in what you’re selling, who will?). But the other part of that equation is that it actually has to work (or at least, don’t offer a guarantee that it will work).

According to the article, “Davis acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that his stunt has led to at least 87 instances in which people have tried to steal his identity, and one succeeded: a guy in Texas who duped an online payday loan operation last year into giving him $500 using Davis’ Social Security number.”

Oops. Now Lifelock customers in Maryland, West Virginia and New Jersey are suing Davis, claiming the service hasn’t worked for them. Davis is still standing behind is service, despite these accusations. You can read the full article for yourself to see some of the other fuzzy gray areas associated with buying into this service.

But once again, it’s a company using its marketing to prey on the fears of people to boost sales. It’s unfortunate that fear sells so well, or else maybe some of these folks wouldn’t be so successful.

Do you buy into ‘fear advertising?’ Have you bought a product or service recently because of a fear? (I’ll ‘fess up: Based on a Red Cross mailing I received, I recently built a whole emergency pack kit complete with bottled water, first aid supplies, canned foods and some cash in the event the Apocolypse hits. Paranoid? Not usually, but what if…..??).

And for marketers: do you use fear to sell? Does it work?



  1. I see a difference between buying LifeLock out of fear, and putting together an emergency kit, “just in case.” The common thread is consumer purchasing, but the emergency kit is simply preparedness. You don’t lose anything by being prepared.

    With a product like LifeLock, when you’re buying out of fear, you’re paying for stuff you don’t need. And you may never use it. That emergency kit can help you many times over… you don’t need a hurricane to find it useful.

  2. I might have some people disagree with me on this, but I bought a micro-chip for my dog when he was a puppy and I think I paid for something I really didn’t need. In fact, my purchasing decision was completely based on fear. I was at the vet’s office talking to the receptionist – who also doubles as an aggressive saleswoman – and she commented that I needed a micro-chip.

    I said I would think about it and that’s when she handed me a pamphlet (fear-based marketing tool!). The cover portrayed a little boy with a leash (no dog attached) crying and yelling out the name “Fido.” There was an accompanying picture that was meant to show where the lost dog actually was…and he was dirty and cowering in an alley surrounded by overflowing trash cans.

    Do I want that to happen to my dog? No. Is that realistic that it would actually happen to my dog? Probably not. Did I make an appointment to get my dog microchiped? Yep.

  3. Identity Theft is such a huge issue, that I belive people should worry about what is going on. However people should educate themselves so they know what to do, or what Identity Theft services will actually work. Buying anything from ‘fear’ will come back and haunt them.

  4. Interesting question, Liza! There’s a whole lot of research on fear appeals, and what makes them work (or not). The most notable explanation is in a theory known as EPPM. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear_appeals. Many health campaigns use fear appeals, and yes, many times they work, and no, they’re not inherently unethical.

    What makes a fear appeal work is 1) if it triggers just the right amount of fear (too little, and people ignore the message; too much, and people flee -psychologically- in a panic); 2) if it conveys response efficacy – aka trust that if people engage in the recommended behavior the problem will be solved; and 3) self-efficacy – people must believe they are able to engage in the recommended behavior.

    Obviously, the company you write about falls short on #2, response efficacy – since it’s been shown that their product is not fail-proof.

    I think it’s stupid and unethical for an identity theft company to endorse risky behaviors such as disclosing your SSN when you don’t have to. The underlying message of that ad, that you don’t have to be very careful with your information if you use their product, is what I take issue with.

  5. Wow, thanks for the insightful comment! That is great and there obviously is a lot of responsibility on a company’s part if they are going to endorse risky behaviors all in the name of selling a product or service.

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