Sex, Fear, and Greed

We had the opportunity yesterday to hear Permjot Valia at the ARK’s Sales and Finance Summit. He is an entertaining and inspiring speaker. He told us, among other things, that every company sells with just one visceral element:

  • sex
  • fear
  • greed

“Sex” here includes things like self-validation and general coolness, fear is about fear of loss, and greed includes not merely the desire to possess things (which could also be under sex) but also the desire to increase revenue and improve one’s standard of living. If you google this theory you will find that there is a fair amount of scholarly work on the subject and that it doesn’t necessarily stand up to rigorous study. But I think that Valia was making a point that has some real value in the context of online marketing.

First, that people often make decisions about buying at a fairly emotional level, and then look for logical reasons to shore up that decision. Second, that you can’t appeal to all the basic emotions at once.

At the table with us at the conference was an economist who has developed software that will make it easier to save people’s lives in the event of a disaster. Clearly, his marketing strategy can appeal to people on the basis of fear. He spoke to us about the World Trade Center disaster and how his software could have gotten everyone — or at least many more people — out of the building safely. He described how it could help firefighters in rural California to pinpoint the areas where there were people in danger.

Does he need a luscious website with pictures of sleek, gleaming hardware and attractive models demonstrating how cool people would look while they used the software? I don’t think so.

We blog for a home security company. They are definitely appealing to people on the basis of fear, and that’s what we write for them:



They could focus on the prestige value of a home security system (sex), or on the importance of securing all your valuables because they are worth so much money (greed), but they can’t do all three.

This may seem to run counter to our usual advice. We recommend using a variety of media to reach different people. We encourage companies to reach people at different stages of their buying decision process and to have pages that appeal to different segments of their markets. So why not make your product appeal to more than one basic response?

Because the more developed parts of the brain can hold more than one idea at once, but the primitive reptilian part of the brain that finds cars sexy cannot. When your customer is thinking logically about which vacuum cleaner offers the best value, she can take into account the size (will it fit in the closet and be easy to carry up stairs?), the durability (what does Consumer Reports have to say about it?), and the effectiveness for her personal needs based on the consumer reviews at your website. The more information we offer about our products and all the issues relating to those products, the better — for our customers and also for communicating effectively with the search engines, which are immune to sex, fear, and greed.

But when your customer is about to treat herself to the Ylang Ylang Homecare Gift Basket because she can just tell that it will make her home feel like the gorgeous photo on your website and make her feel like the best homemaker ever, the primitive part of her brain is engaged. The self-validation of being the kind of woman who has Ylang Ylang Linen Spray in her laundry room (sex, in the paradigm we’re discussing) will make the sale.

Adding fear to the mix by including copy on how many germs live on the average kitchen counter and how long they remain viable will distract that primitive part of the brain, water down the effectiveness of the message about how awesome she’d be if she bought that gift basket, and lose the sale.

So which is it for your company? Are you selling through sex, fear, or greed? And does your website send that message consistently?






One response to “Sex, Fear, and Greed”

  1. […] The other popular view relies on human nature as the reason consumers make any purchases at all. While psychology plays a role in the needs-based B2C sales process (validation and post-purchase stages), the fundamental belief is that three key emotions drive all purchase decisions. […]

Leave a Reply