Badvertising: “I’ve Fallen—and This Time YOU’D BETTER LISTEN!”

In this installment of MarketSmiths’ Badvertising we examine whether using scare tactics in marketing is a plus or a minus. As usual, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

Life Alert’s Horror Commercial Scares the Bejesus Out of Everybody.

In 1989 a Life Call (now Life Alert) ad—featured a little old woman named Mrs. Fletcher who had fallen off her walker and she uttered perhaps the most famous line in advertising history: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” The commercials became an instant hit, but not for the reason Life Alert wanted—to trumpet the benefits of their senior safety alert system—but because they were so campy that they were funny. Dozens of parody ads appeared, mocking the commercial.

Well, their latest commercial isn’t funny at all, in fact it’s straight out of American Horror Story and it’s scared the crap out of everybody. The spot clearly preys on the anxiety that all seniors who live alone must fear: that life goes blissfully on outside your door while you lay on the cold stone floor, helpless, certain to die at the bottom of the stairs. Welcome to your worst nightmare grandma!

life_alert_basement

Thousands took to Life Alert’s Facebook page to complain, beg and plead for them to take the commercial down. “My own grandmother fell and cracked her hip and we brought her to the hospital immediately, but this just makes me feel so awful inside I start crying,” writes one. “I’m 17 years old and this is way too scary. I don’t want to see anyone in that much pain and crying when I’m just trying to enjoy my day. Please take it off the TV.” A petition was created on www.change.org.

Perhaps a bit defensive after decades of being openly mocked and ridiculed, Life Alert‘s initial reaction was to basically tell everyone to suck it up and just be glad that they didn’t make the commercial even scarier: “We’re sorry you feel that that way,” a spokesperson said, “but what you see as insensitive and disturbing is a realistic representation in which many elderly identify with and/or have experienced. In our business… the guilt these families feel is very real and far worse than any commercial that you feel is in bad taste… we hope that you will remember this commercial when it comes time for a family member who may need extra help. Thank you for taking the time.”

Things began to spiral out of control. A “Boycot Life Alert” page was even started on Facebook… Life Alert countered with claims that they were the good guy: “Our goal is to wake people up to the realities of what is going on with the elderly and to get a medical alert system as a PREVENTIVE measure, not a reactionary result to a tragedy.” Regardless, in October of 2014, with mounting public pressure and negative publicity, Life Alert decided to pull the spot and replace it with one much more inoffensive that simply shows the Life Alert button being used and the medical alert button wearer saved. Ho-hum, back to being mocked…

Using scare tactics (however noble the intention) in order to sell a product comes with inherent risk of backlash, and scaring the hell out of children and making them cry is not really the best way to get your point across, unless you’re Wes Craven.

 

Jim recalls a priceless piece of advice that an English teacher once gave him. Throwing a dictionary onto his desk he said, “All of the words are in there, Yoakum, just put them in the right order.” Putting the right words in the right order has been Jim’s goal ever since, and he has honed his skills over the years to include award-winning copywriting, the scripting of three produced movies, the authoring of numerous novels and non-fiction books—and even a stint as writing partners with the late Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame. He is also US Curator of Chapman’s archives. To make himself even more insufferable, Jim has also produced comedy CDs and DVDs. While Jim does not lament his misspent youth, playing drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he does however wish he had back all of those brain cells that he ruthlessly killed.

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