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Blood in the Streets: How I Learned the Power of Fear-Based Promotions From Some of the Best in the Business

One of the first lessons I learned in the early days of my career is that direct marketing success is not all about greed.

My instincts as a young marketer were to focus on the sales pitches that were greed-oriented.

Huge claims…astounding profits…”think of the luxurious lifestyle you’ll live if you just buy this newsletter.”

Those things seemed like the sure path to success as a marketer.

But more and more, I was surrounded by winning packages that were downright depressing.

These were promotions with messages like “the time to invest is when blood is running in the streets.” Or messages about how international terrorism was becoming a larger issue. (This was in the early- to mid-1990s.)

What I quickly learned was that fear can be very powerful – and potentially very lucrative.

In fact, I had a front-row seat for some of the most successful fear-based promotions in history.

The first of these was the famous “Plague of the Black Debt” paperback book package.

I was a marketing manager at the time, which meant I was in charge of coordinating the mailings. (This involved getting the packages printed, mailed, etc.)

My boss at the time, the late Wally Wiesch, had an idea to take a successful fear-based promotion written by Lee Euler and turn it from a traditional #10 package into a paperback book that would mail in a 6 x 9 envelope.

Paperback book promotion for Strategic Investment circa 1993-1994

Now…the format was a breakthrough – for many reasons – and that’s a story worth telling in greater detail sometime soon. But in order for a new format to be successful the copy also has to be powerful.

And in this case it absolutely was.

The copy warned of an imminent depression and was so powerful that people raced to sign up for James Davidson’s Strategic Investment newsletter. (The paid subscriber base grew from 25,000 to around 110,000 at the height of the promotion’s success.)

I specifically remember – and I know I’m dating myself here – coming into the office on a Saturday and noticing that the office fax machine was out of paper.

I refilled the paper roll and then saw that this fax machine – whose number was included as part of the order device – was printing order after order after order.

If you remember the days of rolled fax paper, then you remember how it could fall over the floor quickly. In the short time I was in the office – after re-loading that machine three times – the floor was covered with hundreds of orders.

What we discovered was that the copy was so powerful, people were racing to order as quickly as possible.

(Not only that…they were ordering the newsletter and then passing the book along to friends and relatives. Those people would, in turn, tear out order pages from the back of the book – we had included several – and order as well…even though we had never mailed the promotion to them.)

The overwhelming success of this promotion made it clear to me that fear is just as powerful as greed when it comes to motivating prospects to take action.

In fact, when the copy is strong enough I’m convinced that fear can lead to even greater success…and with faster responses.

The key, obviously, is having a powerful message that connects with the reader. It’s not enough to simply say that “a stock market crash is coming.” Instead you need to show the reader – in clear terms – how a stock market crash is inevitable…and how this crash will impact his or her daily life in a powerful way.

Rather than saying, “the market will drop by 20%” you have to dig deeper. Imagine the impact of that market crash. People will panic. They’ll race to move their assets into cash. Many will want to withdraw cash from their bank accounts to have it on hand.

This could cause some banks to collapse…it could cause delays in accessing your assets. Imagine not being able to pay your mortgage or grocery bill because you can’t access your money and your credit cards are maxed out.

THAT can be the true impact of a fast-moving market collapse…and it’s that sort of personal message that can have the greatest effect on a prospect.

This lesson was driven home even further just a few years later – beginning in 1997 – when I was the publisher for Dr. Gary North’s Remnant Review.

Dr. North had written a promotion of his own that focused on the impending Y2K crisis. (For you younger folks, you may need to look this up.)

Dr. Gary North

At the time, many people had warned that there could be trouble with some computers that weren’t set up to handle the change from the year “1999” to “2000.” But what North was warning would happen was so far beyond anyone else’s warning that it seemed outrageous.

He was warning that the potential computer failure would be more widespread than anyone had predicted. It would cause bank computers to freeze up…cause ATMs to stop working…and even cause prolonged power failures in major cities that could lead to riots and lawlessness.

His promotion painted a terrifying picture – and it quickly became a huge success. His newsletter grew from around 17,000 subscribers to around 100,000 by early 1999 when people were truly beginning to worry about what would happen on January 1, 2000.

Time Magazine actually profiled Dr. North briefly in an article titled, “The End of The World As We Know It?” in January 1999. The piece focused on doomsayers warning of dire consequences associated with the coming Y2K crisis.

Time’s piece said:

“One prominent Reconstructionist is Gary North… ‘In all of man’s history,’ he has warned, ‘we have never been able to predict with such accuracy a worldwide disaster of this magnitude. The millennium clock keeps ticking. There is nothing we can do.’ But he has a few recommendations anyhow: buy gold and grain; quit your job; and find a remote cabin safe from the rioting hordes. He also recommends a two-year subscription (price: $225) to his newsletter, Remnant Review, an offer that appears to reflect a faith that, if nothing else, the mail will keep operating through 2000. As a subscriber incentive he promises ‘my report on 15 stocks which stand to benefit from this crisis.’”

Of course Gary North’s warning proved to be significantly overblown…there were no widespread power failures, bank runs or riots in the streets when the new millennium began.

I had already moved on by that point – and I know his subscriber base fell off significantly in the months that followed.

But the success of that promotion (we mailed it as frequently as we could and at quantities beyond what we were used to mailing for that newsletter) was undeniable.

And it reinforced that lesson once again: When done properly, fear can be a powerful motivator to get your prospect to take action.

The key, though, is to not just express fear of a negative event happening in the future. It’s critical that you paint a vivid picture so the reader understands just how powerful of an impact this event could have on his or her daily life.

It has to be the type of story that is powerful enough to cause nightmares – while still remaining believable and credible.

That’s not always an easy line to navigate – but I was proud that I applied those early lessons to one of my most successful promotions: a promotion in the early 2000s for Strategic Investment that focused on an imminent collapse of the housing market.

In fact – even though I’ve written more greed-based promotions by far in the past several years – I still consider myself more of an expert in fear-based copy. And it’s all because of those powerful lessons learned roughly three decades ago.

Jody Madron is a results-oriented copywriter with 30 years of breakthrough marketing experience.  To learn how Jody can deliver results-boosting copy — ahead of your deadline — visit

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