THE BLOG
10/28/2016 06:08 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2017

Fear and Faith: What Motivates People to Join Movements

Walking around Orlando during breaks from the ANA conference last week, I met Kevin, covered in tattoos, standing beside his 1973 model the Corvette--America's only sports car. Beside the car is a big sign 'Make America Great Again'. He tells me that he's voting for Trump because he's afraid and the world is one scary place. ISIS is bad news. Obamacare is almost as bad. Everything's going to hell. On this corner of Florida Donald Trump is king.

This week I am in Bogota, speaking at the TAD conference about how to create a movement. This is one of Colombia's preeminent strategic marketing events. Juan Correa, associate professor of advertising at the University of Bogota talked about how the fear of homosexuaity was effectively used to rally voters around the in the "no" side in the country's recent peace referendum.

And, of course, then there's Brexit and the effective use of fear by the 'exit' side, using advertising just ahead of the vote to showcase what they said were the massive throngs of Syrian refugees amassing at the English border just waiting enter the country.

Fear is such a scary force. A monster once created can rally millions. We've seen this throughout history, nothing new here. What's extraordinary is how it keeps on working generation after generation, and across all cultures and languages. Politics aside, if you're running a start up or a company or the CMO of a brand, you should be interested in how movements are created and how you can learn from this on a more basic modern marketing level.

But getting back to Orlando for moment, what we see in this country is the use of fear to rally people across the land. Fear is one of the most powerful tools to ignite a movement. So too is faith in something or someone. These and the rest are highlighted in this video.

Fear of the 'other', the 'unknown' and fear of the 'threat' is the oxygen that stokes the fire. "How did we ever get here?" ask Democrats and Republicans alike. Let's roll back the tape. We are human beings, which are an evolutionary step up from Chimps. As animals we react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, preparing the animal for fighting or fleeing, first described by Walter Bradford Cannon. In other words we either show aggression to perceived threats or we run away from them with our tail between our legs.

Over the past year, Donald Trump has managed to motivate nearly half of the American people to align with him by scaring the bejeezus out of them. Rapists, murders, terrorists, ISIS, Mexicans, Democrats rip the calm ole American fabric to shreds. No one needs proof when the sympathetic nervous system kicks in because this is not about logic or rational thought. When you're eating your Whopper and fries it's easy to believe the whopper when Trump adds: "There's something going on, folks."

Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican ad maker, told The Atlantic recently: To the seasoned political practitioner, fear is a handy tool. "Fear is easy," "Fear is the simplest emotion to tweak in a campaign ad. You associate your opponent with terror, with fear, with crime, with causing pain and uncertainty."

Wilson has plenty of experience. In 2002, he made a commercial that criticized Democratic Senator Max Cleland, who had lost three limbs in Vietnam, while showing images of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. In 2008, Wilson made ads attacking Barack Obama by showing the incendiary statements of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. "I wanted to scare the living shit out of white people in Pennsylvania and Ohio," Wilson said. "Today, they would all be Trump voters, I'm sure."

But getting back to Kevin and 1973, for a moment, that was the year his car was made. 1973 was the same year Woody Allen's movie Sleeper premiered. In it, a nerdish store owner is revived out of cryostasis into a future world to fight an oppressive government that uses fear as its main weapon to control civilization. That is until Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) and his group of underground radicals show up and put a stop to the fear mongering. Maybe t's worth watching again this weekend.