Fear Sells

My company is getting an advertising appeal from a firm that will help us get new business.

Here is the pitch:

There is no recession – – we’re in a depression – – created by Alan Greenscam and his privately owned “Fed”!

And…the public response to it is overwhelming.

Good Marketing

The email goes on to explain how the subjects will respond with specific times to call, etc.

It is no surprise.  It is a theme of the highest-rated market blogs.  The top political blogs are also filled with criticism of every idea.  The critics are from both the left and the right.  The mainstream media write the same type of articles, and for good reason.

If you spark controversy, you get comments.  You also get readers returning to the page to see what others say in response.  The wise advice is to be opinionated and controversial.  It builds page views and your value to your company.

Take Rush Limbaugh for example, a topic we covered at ElectionStocks.  Whether President Obama succeeds in bi-partisan leadership is crucial to the country and our economic success.  If you are an investor, it is a subject you should be following with care.

Meanwhile, the Limbaugh approach is one of self-importance.  His approval ratings are a bit higher than Bush or Blagojevich, but few would get excited about 33%.

Already the leading conservative voice with 14 million or so listeners, he has made himself a part of the national policy debate.  He starts with an outrageous statement wishing the President to fail.  Then he gets a response from Obama.  Then he gets an op-ed piece.  And finally he gets even more TV time.  It is a good business model.

Financial media imitate this approach.  Guests on financial TV are routinely advised to be aggressive and opinionated.  It is part of the reason that everything seems to have many sides and no answer.

A Small Test

Yesterday we tried a small test, providing some factual information that no one else writes about — even the leading economists.  It was not bullish nor bearish and it involved no opinion.  Despite this, many readers thought that "we were seeing the glass as half full" or that "government data could not be believed."

This is what we have come to.  There is a natural audience of those who have pre-conceived notions about government.  Those willing to consider data constitute a much smaller group.  It is somewhat like comparing Rush Limbaugh to the Newshour with Jim Lehrer.


Each writer, each investment manager, each company, must find the right market.  Many choose to profit from investor fear, exploiting the events of the past year.  It is probably a poor business decision, but we reject this approach.

We are left with the traditional idea.  As so often happens, it is best expressed by Warren Buffett.

Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.

[Full disclosure.  Our TCA-ETF clients were 50% short today and also had winning gold positions, so this is not talking our book.  As usual, we write about events while actual positions vary.]

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  • nullpointer January 30, 2009  

    while i disagree with you on many things, this post is the reason i still subscribe via RSS.
    on this subject, i coudnt agree with you more.

  • RB January 30, 2009  

    In this context, I’m glad to see that you’ve removed Digital Rules from your list of recommended blogs.

  • Patrick January 30, 2009  

    I’m posting just to drive up comments on your non-controversial post 😉
    Seriously, the consequence that comes of this is that people are finding their own media to pay attention to and tune out the rest. The 14 million Rush listeners don’t seek out any other info because it would make them uncomfortable. How can anyone read Calculated Risk or The Big Picture and then watch Kudlow on CNBC (seems like he is on all day with his rosy scenario routine).
    It used to be everyone got the same info from the same sources. It is a new age.

  • Jeff Miller January 30, 2009  

    Nullpointer — I am delighted that you are a subscriber and that you occasionally find an observation where you agree.
    May I make a modest suggestion? A good reason to read “A Dash” is that you often disagree and it is a different viewpoint. Several of the sites I feature represent well-reasoned alternative viewpoints. I read them regularly, and recommend them often.
    It is a sign of strength to consider variant views:)
    Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

  • Jeff Miller January 30, 2009  

    Patrick — Thanks for your addition to traffic!
    It is indeed a new age of information. The question is what we can make of it.

  • PureGuesswork February 2, 2009  

    I would add that while fear sells, the best pitch for adding to web traffic–as evidenced by the promotional piece you received–is to combine fear with contempt for the powerful. It is very comforting to imagine that by reading a blog you are not simply joining a frightened and angry pitchfork carrying mob, but becoming part of an elite that is smarter than all the powerful government and Wall Street types. One finds this attitude in even some of the more intelligent blogs. Even in these blogs I feel this attitude has more of an emotional than rational basis.