How To Sell Fear to Generation Y

Who Are We?

I’m sure you’ve noticed us. Heck, you’ve probably yelled at us for texting while walking or asked us to fix your computer.

  • We’re currently the world’s youth, Generation Y, also known as Millennials or Generation We.
  • We’re born between 1980-2000, and there are alot of us -about 95 million strong, making Millennials the largest generation in history.
  • We’re a generation like never seen before. We’ve achieved high levels of education, we’re technologically capable and we’re ethnically diverse.

But for all of our wonderful traits; Millennials are transitioning into adulthood, and we’re afraid.

At 23 years old, I’m nearly in the centre of my generation and much like other Millennials, I’m educated. In fact, I’m currently writing my  graduate thesis on the emotional appeal of brands to Millennials. I want to find out which emotions are most likely to attribute to brand loyalty.

Here’s What I Discovered

It’s fear.

Growing up, I was regularly told “you’re going to graduate university at the best time possible…all the baby boomers will be retiring and there will so many jobs available”.

Uh, wrong!

And I wasn’t the only Millennial to be made this promise.

Now youth unemployment is at record high and 20.3% of 16-24 year olds in the UK are out of work – this is the highest figure ever recorded! What’s even more concerning, is it’s a global trend.

Before I wrote this post I sent out a quick survey to students in my university department and simply asked:

What’s your greatest fear ?

The answers below, are a sample of the typical sentiments of an average Millennial.

They fear: failure, personal inadequacy, the unknown, failing at everything, never marrying or having kids, losing control of situations, being lonely, being emotionally hurt, being let down, letting themselves down.

This is not to say that we’re totally forlorn, but in order to understand Millennials, it’s important to acknowledge that at a time when most of us our coming of age, the world is falling apart. Our heads where filled with promises of success, and quite frankly, we’re disappointed.

Fear Marketing Is Unwelcomed Here

Organizations are communicating with an audience that has been on the receiving end of fear inducing messages throughout their lives.

“Don’t talk to strangers, or you’ll die.” “Wear your seatbelt, or you’ll die.” “Smoking kills.” “Second-hand smoking kills.” “Third hand smoke kills”. “Drinking kills.” “Pesticides kill”.

Rannie Teodoro, a student at Rutgers University found through her research that fear appeals are ineffective because young people have witnessed or done these “deadly” activities and, to put it bluntly, not died.

Trying to initiate feelings of fear about death, disease, poverty etc. Will only be met with scepticism.

Organizations Must Pay Attention to Us

Generation Y is known for its consumerism. We’re voracious and sophisticated consumers with deep brand awareness. Actually, we’re so driven to consume that some social scientists believe that our consumptions patterns are reflected in our love of vampires and their constant need for blood. (Creepy, eh?)

So Who’s Got It?

Organizations that minimize our fears by making us feel valid, included, and special will have a loyal Millennial following. They should offer us something that minimizes and comforts; our fear of failure and the unknown.


As an industry, higher education has a devoted following of Millennials. They offer students more than just education; they promise a good, happy, self-fulfilling future. They give Millennials validation, a community and a sense of certainty in an uncertain world.

And is this working? Of course! The number of Millennials with post-secondary education continues to grow, even in a recession.

Social Media:

Social Media is the ultimate outlet for Millennials and it caters directly to our fear of insignificance. Nothing says “hey, I’m here, I matter” more than a blog. Facebook gives a sense of community regardless of our location, and  Twitter, is a constant source of information.


I can’t mention brand loyalty and Millennials; without mentioning Apple. Why are Millennials so crazy for it? Because it puts our fears to rest. Take their recent slogan: “There’s An App For Everything”.

How can Millennials possibly feel inadequate if they can have everything in the palm of their hand?

Apple products make us feel in control of our fears through something we know and understand: technology.

Make us Feel Empowered

Of course organizations will need to consider other marketing factors, to be truly loved by Millennials. But understanding our basic fears and primal instinct, is a good a place as any to start.

  • What has your experience been with Millennials?
  • What are your impressions about this generation as consumers?
  • Have you had success with fear marketing?

More from the Author:

Whitney Punchak

Whitney Punchak is studying for an MA in Media and Public Relations at Newcastle University. She’s expected to graduate in August 2011 and is looking forward to a career is public relations. He thesis is in exploring the emotions Generation Y has toward corporations and their brands.

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  • Jens P. Berget

    Hi Whitney,

    Brilliant post. I’m not one of you guys, I’m way too old, but I feel like I’m one of you .. because I’m walking and texting and I’m really just a kid (in my own mind).

    I work at a University in Norway, and I’m actually the head of marketing, so I deal with Generation Y almost on a daily basis. It’s hard, and it’s different, because they’re almost immune to advertising. So, we need to use inbound marketing and create relations with them instead of just buying ads in large newspapers or TV.

    We use their fears, because we try our best to tell them what they’ll become if they get an education although we don’t say what will happen if they don’t. We just try to be as specific as possible about what type of jobs they can expect to get if they graduate.

    – Jens

    • Dino Dogan

      Yo Jens…you said something really really powerful in your comment. Gen Y is immune to advertising. Thats a HUGE lesson. Also, I dindt know you worked at the U. Very awesome 🙂

      • Jens P. Berget

        Yes, I’m working at the university.. but I was trying to hide it. Sounds lame, when you compare it to “songwriter, dog trainer & a biz blogger. And, global force for badassery.” 🙂

        • Dino Dogan

          oh dude…I make a living as a Network Engineer (retired 🙂 so marketing god at the U of N sounds pretty freakin awesome by comparison.

          • Jens P. Berget

            It’s not as awesome as you might think – but hopefully I’ll get the novel published, that would be awesome 🙂

    • Whitney Punchak

      Then you are an honorary member of Gen Y. And we’re thankful for people like you who “get” us.

      That’s interesting that you say we’re almost immune to advertising. I’m curious, are you using social media to contact potential students? How is that working out?

      I’ve had really positive experiences with my Alma mater’s marketing department. They were always knowledgeable and helpful. The approach of telling students what to expect and selling the university experience has a lot of appeal.

      • Jens P. Berget

        Hi Whitney,

        Thanks a lot. I’d love to be part of Gen Y. You guys seems to be having a lot more fun 🙂

        We’re using social media, but only Facebook. That’s mostly because of not enough resources to be using many different platforms, and because Norwegians are just crazy when it comes to Facebook. It seems that close to 100% of Norwegians are using Facebook 🙂

        I believe we’re doing a good job when it comes to social media. We’re not interrupting anything and we’re answering questions almost 24 hours a day 7 days a week. We’re always there, and it’s on Gen Y’s terms. They don’t have to find the information by looking all over the web, just ask us where you’re already at.

        – Jens

        • Whitney Punchak

          That is so awesome! In hindsight, how a university uses social media is something I should’ve considered before applying. As I mentioned, the university where I did my undergrad did a fantastic job. But my current university in the UK is still very into bureaucracy and mail (mind you I’m in the UK and they do love their post). I think how universities use social media is telling of the entire operation, a good litmus test.

  • John Falchetto

    Hi Whitney

    What I find interesting is that every generation goes through the same ‘crisis’. I am gen X, and I was told the same nonsense. I graduated in the mid 90s, and the boomers were still hanging on to their jobs with dear life.

    I worked in the PR dpt of a big advertising firm and I have to say I lost faith in advertising when I saw how it was done. This is me an unsophisticated, non brand aware, gen X talking.

    I agree with Jens, brands are loosing their money advertising to gen Y, at least in the traditional sense. The same way they are loosing it with gen X by sending me ads in the mail, or interrupting my TV/Radio program.

    Does fear work? Yep big time. Just look at how some snake oil salesman sell “how to get the perfect body in 4hrs or work only 4hrs a week”…the two biggest fears in the Western world right there.
    Not having a job, or making money and not having a 6 pack or being fat.

    So fear works.

    • Whitney Punchak

      One of the difficulties I’m having with my research is isolating which attributes are generation specific and which are a product of youth. Our traits will become more clear as we enter adulthood (the youngest Gen Y is only 11 years old). But it’s reassuring that other generations went through a crisis phase.

      Absolutely, fear does work. But I think it needs to find a new angle to really be effective with Gen Y. Another possibility is that as more of us have families of our own, our priorities will inevitably change and we’ll interpret and respond to fear differently.

  • The JackB

    Hi Whitney,

    I am a cranky old man, part of Gen X. Ok I am not old but I am a little bit cranky. In many ways the world that you have grown up in isn’t that different than the one we had. I remember lots of “catastrophes.” I remember waiting in lines to fill up the car with gas. It was a different crisis than we have today- we waited for a good 30 minutes to over an hour to be able to fill our tank.

    I remember some of the stories that the Vietnam Vets told and things people said about Watergate and Nixon. Those were very big deals in the US. And I can’t leave out the stories about communism and the Cold War. People used to talk about whether the US and Russia would go to war and what NATO would do.

    When I graduated from University the country was in a small recession and it took time for me to find work- but I found it.

    So like John said I think that we all go through these things. But I do see a difference with millenials and that is a sense of entitlement that isn’t very endearing. I hear a lot of millenials talk about what they should have and I don’t understand that.

    I don’t understand why so many think that they don’t need to work to earn things. It is not a matter of paying dues just because everyone else did it. Some of it comes from a lack of real world experience. That is not a knock against anyone. It is just an acknowledgement that sometimes life and work experience has a value/worth that is significant. You can’t get that in school.

    I could be entirely wrong about my perception here but this is what I have been exposed to in the business world. Anyway, I think that the millenials will come into their own. I remember when my fellow Gen X’ers and I used to bristle at being told similar things.

    • Whitney Punchak

      It’s true there’s always going to be some kind of crisis that can generate fear.

      It’s unfortunate that Gen Y has a stereotype of entitlement. Obviously there is a lot of variety within any generation, but I have yet to meet a Gen Y who does not expect to work hard for their dreams. And really, we just want what most people already have – job, home, family. We are very motivated to achieve these goals. We’ve spent thousands of dollars (or in the US hundreds of thousands) on an education to make us employable, we’ve volunteered, we’ve worked.

      However I have noticed that by graduation, most students are fed up with being a student and they want to move out of their parent’s house, earn a salary, and start their lives. It is my opinion that this frustration may be what is misconceived as entitlement.

      But again, this is not a trait exclusive to Gen Y. What is unique is the number. We are the largest generation to go through this kind of intensive schooling before entering the workforce – maybe that is what brought on the reputation?

  • Justice Wordlaw IV

    With the gen-y users of todays time I feel that we are on the break of having the most power of any other generation before us. With leveraging the multiple social platforms that we have we have a voice as strong as any other. We talk about and share ideas in ways that no generation before us has ever had the ability of doing. So, I think the fear portion should be for anyone following us as we voice our opinion on politics, health, social engagement and much more.

    Fear marketing itself is something where it had some success but not much. As we all like to test the waters of what we can and can not do. So, yes we might be feared of something for a small amount of time but we also try to figure out solutions as to how we could break down that wall into a more positive form for our lives.

    • Whitney Punchak

      I’m not sure if powerful is the right term, but perhaps unified. Gen Y has definitely made an impact already, the election of Obama is probably the best example of that. And Gen Yers participate in politics and things like volunteering at a higher percent than other generations did at our age.

      I like your perspective about fear – very optimistic and proactive. 🙂

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  • tracetime

    Raising 2 GenY sons (12 & 17) and this post is a really nice peek into their heads. I try to keep in mind that this is their world so I turn down the “turn down that punk music” rant as the dubstep bumps under my office floor. True that they’ve heard all the fear tactics and lived, giving me an opportunity to (hopefully) lessen the power of fear motive in their lives and they have access to massive amounts of information I’m not in control of w/o moving to an ashram. Ah, yes…looking into what makes each generation tick breeds a new understanding and perhaps better connection. Thanks for this biz/reality post. 

    • Whitney Punchak

      Your comment about their music made me laugh! And it reminded me of my neighbour from university dorms…he had a full stereo system, including a subwoofer, and enjoyed heavy metal. I never thought about what it would be like to raise someone from this generation. I guess the technology (particularly internet) bit brings on a whole new set of challenges that a previous generation of parents did not need to consider. Thanks for the comment!