THE BLOG

Fear and Trembling

05/18/2015 06:12 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2016

It has long been said (maybe the renowned sociologist Vance Packard said it first) that Madison Avenue frames its advertising campaigns around man's conscious or subconscious fears. Fear is the catalyst. Indeed, man's fears, insecurities, and regrets are what make possible the Art of the Sale.

Examples of fertile ground: The fear of not fitting in, the fear of missing out, the fear of driving an unworthy car, the fear of drinking an uncool beer, the fear of municipal drinking water, the fear of emitting "morning breath," the fear of vaginas smelling like, well, vaginas. You name it, and a sharp-eyed marketer will find a way of making it scary.

Marketers, advertisers, and elected officials (arguably, themselves a species of "marketer") not only exploit a human being's core fears, they are devoted to inventing new fears -- lurid fears, subversive fears, abstract fears -- in order to manipulate us. After all, nothing motivates people more than fear, and voters need to be manipulated every bit as much as consumers do.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but politicians and the media have basically conditioned us to be afraid of everything: Young black men, skinheads, hippies, China, immigrants, socialists, Halloween candy, trans fats, transsexuals, melting glaciers, inflation, unemployment, labor unions, taxes, nudists, Muslims, having our identity stolen, and the prospect of living an "unfulfilled" life.

Indeed, compared to all the insidious and potentially fearful mind-trips out there, a person with a morbid fear of spiders or snakes seems almost refreshing.

I took a philosophy class once where we discussed the concept of fear. We examined it from an epistemological, psychological and physiological point of view. We also sought to compare and contrast modern man's fears with those of the "cavemen," asking ourselves, among other things, who had the most fears -- those primitive archetypes or us.

Needless to say, it was no contest. Our prehistoric ancestors were afraid of very little, maybe five or six things, tops. Cavemen feared being attacked by wild animals, starving to death, freezing to death, being beaten to death by a stronger caveman, and falling into a river and drowning. That was pretty much it. The fear of being ridiculed behind their back for wearing an unattractive animal pelt didn't even move the needle.

So what does this comparison tell us about human progress? Yes, modern man invented science, technology, aesthetics, philosophy and mathematics, and yes, we put a man on the moon, and yes, we cured small pox, and yes, people now live more than twice as long as the cavemen did.

But despite those achievements, modern man has to acknowledge that at any given point in time there are about 300-400 things out there that frighten us. It's true. When we contemplate it, we realize there are hundreds of things that keep us scared shitless. And how does that revealing bit of self-knowledge make us feel? Naturally, it scares us.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book ("Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories") will be published in June.