Taking ADvantage
Live and Let Die: Self-Preservation and Advertising


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 28 May 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.

A woman is driving down a freeway at night. Suddenly her radiator begins to steam. She pulls off, looking for a service station. She drives through a rough section of the city, fear on her face as she quavers, "Why is this happening to me?"


A little boy sits in the snow by the roadside, clutching his hockey stick and peering into the dark, cold night. Headlights approach, but it's a pick-up full of rowdies. He sinks back in dejection, whispering "Come on, Dad. Where are you?"


A woman is driving her three children down the street. The two girls start screaming when the boy shows them a frog. The mother can't hear the siren of the fire engine approaching the same intersection she is. When the fire engine passes we see her alarmed expression as she realized she stopped just in time and is glad her brakes worked.


The above are all examples of television commercials that illustrate the strongest of all psychological appeals that advertising can use -- self-preservation. In using self-preservation as an appeal, the advertiser is telling rher audience, "Listen to me, and I'll keep you alive."

Self-preservation is keeping yourself alive, either physically or psychologically. The latter includes mentally or economically healthy. Since human beings are very social creatures, they may also apply self-preservation to other people, such as their families.


To be successful as a species, the members of that species must have a desire to survive long enough to pass on their genes to offspring. This applies to humans as much as any other animal: humans desire personal survival; seek food, drink, rest, sex; fit into niches; must adapt to changing conditions.

Humans are subject to the same stimuli and reactions as any other animal. Threats, physical, mental or emotional, cause the fight-or-flight syndrome and avoidance behaviors.

In addition to typical biological responses to current threats, human can think. We can consciously perceive and react to stimuli, plan ahead, decide how to respond to threats. Because of this, humans extend the concept of self-preservation beyond personal survival. We live in extremely complex and interdependent societies, where people band together in groups for mutual aid and protection.


It is the fact that humans have conscious abilities that makes self-preservation a strong appeal in advertising. Unlike other animals that react to stimuli as they occur, humans not only live in the present, but in the past and the future. A dog may bristle at a threat, but not at a threat that's long gone or hasn't yet occurred. Humans will do all three. It is this ability to remember the past, relate it to the present, and project into the future that is a special province of humans, and of great use to advertising.

Advertising shows how the sponsor's product or service aids the purchaser in personal or social group survival. The first example at the top of the chapter shows how the product, an antifreeze/coolant for the car, can help the woman stay out of such (apparently) dangerous situations. The second example appeals to saving a member of the family, while the third appeals to both personal and family survival.

Note that the appeals use fear as the tool to affect the audience of the ads: fear of being in a dangerous situation, fear of abandonment and loneliness, fear of death. Fear is a particularly good appeal to use in advertising because of the human ability to remember the past and project into the future. People can remember events that relate to the images used in the ad and project how the product could alleviate the fear into the future. Also, when purchase time comes, the customer can remember how the ad showed what the product could do, again project into the future, and decide to purchase the product. Here, we have a conscious decision to alleviate an unconscious, and at the time of purchase nonexistent, feeling of fear.

Fear appeals can be used for things other than dangerous situations, ones that could cause direct harm or damage to a person or a person's group. For example, humans need money to alleviate many of the obstacles to survival in human society. People need money to buy food, since for society to function it needs more than each individual hunting or gathering for rherself; shelter consists of houses, apartments, condominiums, etc., which have to be paid for; the technology to earn the money to buy the food, drink, shelter, protection has to be bought, as does the protection from the technology that provides the money that they need.

A strong fear appeal can be applied by implying the product or service can prevent losing the ability to get the money necessary for personal or group survival in human society. For example, insurance companies often use the fear approach in their advertising. A recent insurance company commercial showed that, because a man bought his life insurance from them, he could stay alive. They gave him his death benefit before he died so he could afford a heart transplant.1 Thus, the man's personal survival is assured. This demonstration of the power of money, or rather the fear that can be created by showing what can happen if you don't have money, is very effective in persuading people that the company's policy is valuable and worth buying to alleviate that fear. Other commercials show what can happen to a family when the breadwinner dies without insurance, or what can happen to someone if they don't have auto or home or liability insurance when something occurs for which they have to pay.

Recently, the American Bar Association relaxed rules on lawyers advertising. Attorneys' ads often use a fear appeal, showing what can happen if you don't have a lawyer representing you in civil court.2 Invariably, you lose your ability to earn or keep money that you need for survival.

Expanding self-preservation to the preservation of the group, advertising can use the fear approach to show how the product or service can help the group survive. For example, some American ads can show how foreign competition is hurting American business, thus hurting American workers, thus hurting all Americans, thus hurting you as an American -- the "Buy American" approach. Here the fear is that the American way of life and thus the American society is threatened, and if your society is threatened, so are you. After all, it could be your job (read, your money) that could go next. Therefore you should buy products because they're American-made: no other reason is necessary.

During times of international conflict, advertising takes advantage of the already existing fear of destruction by the enemy by pointing up how the company supports the fight against the "evil others." The fear approach here is to alleviate the danger by supporting the company (by buying its products) to help the company support the effort against the enemy. The magazine ads from the early 1940s show this approach -- how evil the Nazis and Japanese were in World War II and how the companies rallied around to support the war effort, and the consumer should support the company so it could continue its efforts.3 During the Persian Gulf War, many ads showed how companies supported the allied troops fighting Iraq, thus showing their support for society and its survival, and therefore for the survival of the individuals in that society.

Of course, a danger can arise from using fear appeals. If the images presented are too weak there is little reaction other than discomfort, which may not be sufficient to influence a later purchase decision. On the other hand, if the images are too strong, the audience may feel that such a situation could never happen to them, and thus there is no reason for them to purchase something to prevent it.

Another aspect of using the appeal of self-preservation in advertising is that there exists an age link to its effectiveness. That is, the younger the intended audience, the weaker the effect. A research project (Craig et al, 1993) showed anti-drug commercials that contained a self-preservation appeal to a variety of age groups: grade school, high school and college. Audience reactions were determined through questionaires and focus groups. Findings showed that effectiveness and recall of the message, that drugs can kill you, decreased as the age of the audience dropped.

A possible explanation for the above findings is that the appeal to self-preservation in advertising creates a current fear to cause a future action. For example, the ad shows what can happen if you don't buy the proper brand when you next purchase anti-freeze. However, for such an appeal to work, the audience has to have a sense of future mortality, that rhe can be hurt or die.

It has been said that the moment rhe realizes that rhe can personally die is the moment a person becomes an adult. This is an acknowledgment that the young rarely have a sense of personal mortality. The above research results support this contention. The ads' attempt to tell children that drugs can kill them ran counter to the children's sense of immortality. As the audience got older, their sense of mortality got stronger, and so did the effectiveness of the message.

Clearly, the appeal to self-preservation requires that the audience be convinced of their own mortality, making the ad effective by showing how a product can hold off that mortality. Thus, there is little point in using the appeal for an audience that isn't yet out of its teen years.

There are approaches other than fear that advertising can take to appeal to self-preservation, such as the example for computer disks which uses a humorous approach to self-preservation ("We probably won't live to tell about it. But, hey, our data will.") However, since fear is a strong visceral reaction to personal and imminent danger, the other approaches are much weaker. This is particularly true in societies with a high standard of living, where hunger, thirst, lack of shelter or personal safety is (usually) easily satisfied. Showing appetizing food can be appealing to someone who is hungry at that moment, triggering the self-preservation impulse of satisfying hunger, or how thirst-satisfying a drink product can be to a thirsty person. Nonetheless, in most consumer societies, such approaches are less to self-preservation than to other appeals, such as sex, self-esteem, or personal enjoyment.

Self-preservation can also be linked to other appeals. The most common is to altruism. However, it can be linked to others, as in the example and its link to sex.

Types of Ads

The most common type of ad that uses the appeal to self-preservation is the slice of life. The usual format is to place a person with whom the target audience can identify in some form of possible jeopardy. The examples at the top of the chapter do this: the woman is in jeopardy because her radiator boiled over and stranded her in a bad neighborhood; the little boy is at the mercy of the night and the dangerous people that may be in that night; the woman is in danger of a major accident. The ad then implies that using the product will prevent the jeopardy from occurring: the right antifreeze will prevent boilovers and thus danger, etc..

Note that the danger is not eliminated, merely held off. This can leave the consumer with the feeling that the danger is always lurking out there, and thus needs to be constantly guarded against -- by buying the product.


Self-preservation is the strongest of psychological appeals that advertising can use, since all other appeals require the consumer be alive to be affected by them. The appeal is particularly effective if it shows how the product or service can keep the purchaser alive. Nonetheless, since humans are such social creatures, the concept of self-preservation can be extended to the social group rhe considers rherself a part of, be it family, tribe or nation, since the survival of the group is often critical to the survival (at least in rher own mind) to the group member's survival.

Fear is the most common approach used in self-preservation appeals: fear of death, injury, damage, harm, to either the individual or the individual's group. If the product or service can prevent the occurrence of whatever causes the fear, it can be appealing to the person who feels a fear of the occurrence.

Although other possible approaches can be used to appeal to self-preservation, fear is the most common and most effective approach when using the appeal of self-preservation in advertising.

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