Fear Messaging: Schools, Guns, and Walls

Fear of immigrants is what drives the Wall.
The wall is a powerful symbol.

Recently, Secretary Betsy Devos was discussing the fear of school shootings and the importance of preventing them. This is unusual for Republicans because discussions of school shootings usually segues directly into gun control, an issue that Republicans tend to oppose.

Their plan for protecting students was to arm school staff, and the language used to justify the program provided some illumination as to why this an active part of their agenda.

They suggested that students were in danger. Students and parents are living in fear.

A few days later, President Trump was talking about the need for the Wall. He used words like “invasion,” “protect our borders,” and other terms that strike fear into the hearts of Americans. This is not a matter of policy. It’s a matter of life and death. At least that’s what he’d have you believe.

Stone cold criminals? That's a reason for fear.
Stone cold criminals? That’s terrifying!

The larger fear agenda

Why so much fear? Fear in schools. Fear on the border. Fear in trade policy. Fear everywhere. Why is everyone telling us to be fearful? Does someone benefit from this?

As it turns out, someone does benefit. The Republican party. A recent article in Psychology Today explained a series of recent studies that explain that Conservatives tend to be more fearful and Liberals more optimistic. It has also been shown that a person can be made to make more Conservative choices if they are in a higher state of fear than they would otherwise.

In other words, people can be scared into voting Republican. They can also be inspired into voting Democrat.

This is why Barack “Yes We Can” Obama was so successful in his campaigns. It also explains why Donald “Build the Wall” Trump was so successful in his.

Much as we see in the use of outrage tactics, the more afraid the administration can make the public, the more support they will have. You only need someone to keep you safe if you feel you are in danger, so the strategy of emphasizing danger, demonstrating the ability to protect you, and decrying your opponent’s weakness is an effective strategy.

Messaging for effect

In many situations, there are concurrent emotions that will drive individuals to support a cause or campaign. As people have become angrier about egregious misdeeds revealed by the #metoo movement, they have become more likely to believe other allegations. On the other hand, if they are made to think about false allegations, they become less inclined to believe.

We see it in marketing as well. People who feel more positive are more inclined to make large purchases, so many advertisers want people be in a positive, hopeful mood. They want to emphasize a happy positive future in which you can enjoy your new car, house, clothes, TV, etc.

This occurs in many domains, and we can see it well demonstrated in modern politics today. Historically, when Republicans have used the fear strategy, Democrats have often made the mistake of trying to play their game, but not as well. If Republicans are tough on crime, and Democrats try to catch up, they build the level of fear in the electorate. That only helps Republicans who have already positioned themselves as the “strong” party that will “keep you safe.”

On the other hand, when Obama used a message of hope, it shifted the mood of people, making them more receptive to his message. You don’t care who is better at keeping you safe if you do not feel you are in danger.

What we can learn

In any campaign you run, whether it is crisis communications, political campaign, or regular marketing, you must consider what mindset will make people most receptive to your message and try to encourage that mindset. If you chase your opponent’s message, you will simply push the mindset that supports them while being runner up in their messaging.

Always develop your own space, and then seek to dominate that space.


Do you need help discovering what mindset you need to create in your audience and how to message to them? We can help. Contact us.

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