Fundamentally, marketing is about identifying a consumer problem and offering a solution, whether it is breath-freshening mouthwash, anti-dandruff shampoo or aftershave that promises to make its wearer attractive to the opposite sex.
However, a delicate balance must be struck. A product won't sell unless it solves a problem, and that predicament needs to be powerfully dramatised in advertising.
At the same time, brands risk a backlash if they are seen to be manipulating anxieties.
As paranoia about swine flu continues unabated, brands offering protection from the virus are flying off the shelves. The government's 'Catch it, bin it, kill it' public health campaign, and continuous media coverage, have combined to dramatise the so-called pandemic. Official advice to wash hands with anti-bacterial soap and wipe surfaces with germ-killing cleaners is boosting sales of brands in these areas. Sales of PZ Cussons' handwash brand Carex, for example, are rocketing, while bleach brand Domestos claims that sales of its Spray product have risen 17% since the start of the year.
Domestos has taken out newspaper ads promoting its Spray as a product that helps protect against swine flu, and its website prominently features a section entitled 'important information about swine flu'.
It claims that Domestos destroys flu viruses, unlike anti-bacterial products which are 'not guaranteed to'.
However, some observers believe the brand may have overstepped the mark. 'I can understand why people may think that the Domestos campaign is no more than opportunism,' says Tony Harris, deputy chairman of ad agency RKCR/Y&R. 'Does it feel right to do this when people are suffering and some are passing away? Somehow it doesn't feel like cricket.'
Nonetheless, he adds, Domestos could argue that it is providing a public service by alerting people to the importance of keeping surfaces clean.
Matt Close, Unilever's vice-president of marketing for the UK and Ireland, contends: 'The marketing provided people with a positive, clear and memorable message about a product that can help protect them and their families.'
The overt swine-flu strategy pursued by Domestos contrasts with that of Carex. PZ Cussons says that although sales of its anti-bacterial hand gel have increased by 205% since swine flu first started making head-lines in April, the brand makes no direct mention of the virus in its marketing material. This autumn, Carex will run a campaign in schools promoting hand-washing as a defence against viral infection, but even this activity will not specifically mention swine flu.
Some observers believe Carex has already built up credibility as a defence against viral infection, so can avoid playing directly to people's anxieties about swine flu. 'Domestos does not seem to be as appropriately positioned as Carex,' says Martin Troughton, marketing director of Anglian Home Improvements and founder of direct marketing agency Harrison Troughton Wunderman. 'Upsetting people is dangerous - they are already wondering if swine flu is being scaremongered by the media.'
Troughton says marketers routinely turn to fear in an attempt to sell products. He cites ads for furniture chains that use phrases such as 'Hurry, sale ends Wednesday'. It is a tactic he describes as 'fear of loss', which is implicit in many campaigns.
However, he adds that marketers have to think carefully about how they use fear. He gives the example of a door, being marketed by Anglian, which has a lock protecting against 'key bumping' - the practice of using specially prepared keys that can open any lock with a bit of a nudge.
Key bumping, and its possible use by burglars, has become a hot topic in the US and is starting to become an issue in the UK, too. YouTube hosts dozens of videos explaining how to use the keys, one of which has had 8m views. The keys are easily obtained over the internet - one site boasts its wares can 'gain entry to any lock' - and inevitably there have been calls for a ban on the sale of such products to the general public.
The problem for Anglian, then, is how far it should stir householders' anxieties about key bumping in its marketing material. 'We have a dilemma,' says Trough-ton. 'Do we or don't we scare everyone about the risk? We launched this anti-bump lock in January and for six months we have been marketing it without scaring people, positioning it as an insurance lock. We would not market it in a very public way, but talk about it when selling face-to-face. We position it against the opposition, but we will not try to upset the market.'
While the fears surrounding swine flu and key bumping may be rational, market-ers have also been accused of using scare tactics in areas where being in the public interest does not come into play.
Sasha Hannah, a director at design agency Haines McGregor, points to the rising trend of aiming anti-ageing products at women in their late 20s. She adds that women in this age group have also come
to represent a market for Botox treatment, which paralyses facial muscles to soften wrinkles - some-thing previously resorted to only by much older women. 'The beauty industry definitely plays on women's fears,' she says.
In the UK, playing on anxieties in marketing communications is expressly forbidden by advertising regulators. The Committee of Advertising Practice code has a clause that states: 'No marketing communication should cause fear or distress without good reason.' A number of ads have been banned for transgressing this rule.
Even so, much hinges on the definition of 'good reason'. Many of the government's campaigns against drink-driving and smoking have used terrifying images, though these are usually considered acceptable by the Advertising Standards Authority. However, an ongoing campaign, which broke last year, urging people to pay their TV licence, sparked a public backlash, with consumers declaring the ad 'menacing and threatening'. The ads depict a city in the form of a computer's inner workings, and boast that the government has access to information on every household.
Some believe that the use of fear as a sales tool is much more overt in the US, where gun sales are buoyed by the relentless sensationalism of crime in news reports. Personal-care brands there are also much more explicit in their use of the 'fear of loss' technique. Promotional material for Axe, the US version of Unilever's Lynx male-grooming brand, uses stark statistics such as '85% of girls agree that dandruff on a guy is a turn-off'.
Procter & Gamble's Head & Shoulders, meanwhile, claims in its ads that 50% of people have suffered from dandruff. Yet one ad executive who worked on the brand says P&G 'created' a fear of dandruff to sell the product, much like personal-care brands in the 60s and 70s stigmatised body odour and bad breath.
Ironically, Axe has been criticised for not being scary enough. In an attempt to combat 'Axe huffing' among US teenagers - many of whom reportedly inhale the product to get a chemical high - Unilever has placed a film on the brand's website warning of the dangers of misuse. However, some consumers have condemned the film's tongue-in-cheek, 'Axe effect' endline, which states: 'Huffing Axe can kill your game - and you.' According to forum postings, the message is not hard-hitting enough to prevent misuse.
Politicians and corporations often promise to protect us from perceived threats by playing on our fears. Troughton, however, sounds a warning: 'It becomes unethical when marketers stop people sleeping at night over an issue in which there is no public interest.'
Department of Health
Images of smokers with fish hooks in their mouth for a smoking-cessation campaign were deemed too frightening for children last year. The ASA ordered the DoH to show the TV ads only during adult programmes and banned the images from print ads.
Save the Children
In 2006, the charity sent out a mailing with a picture of the eyes of an African child on the envelope and the words: 'If you have brown eyes, you are more likely to die young.' The ASA ruled that the campaign could cause 'undue distress and fear' among children who might interpret the message literally.
Aviva's Norwich Union Healthcare brand was censured by the ASA in 2005 after it played on fears of poor NHS care as part of a campaign to promote its range of private insurance products.
A TV ad for Domestos Bleach Cleaning Spray in 2005 featuring a monstrous grey germ was banned from being broadcast around children's program-mes after complaints from members of the public that their offspring found it too frightening.