Marketing truths: People buy pleasure, not prevention

Ian Lurie

People buy pleasure, not prevention. I know, deep for a Friday afternoon. It’s a rule that’s helped me sell for years, though. Try it on for size:

Bike helmets and prevention: A marketing failure

It’s hard to scare people into buying something.

When I was in law school, I worked in a bicycle shop that sold a lot of kids’ bikes. Parents would shell out $200 on a bicycle their child was going to ride for a year.

But half of them balked at paying $45 for a helmet. I’d beg. I’d plead. I’d tell them to buy a cheaper bike and get the helmet. I’d show them my Lucky Helmet, which took a car door at 35 mph. I explained how that helmet saved my life. Nothing.

I’d get all manner of excuses: My son won’t wear it. I never needed one when I was growing up. My daughter will just lose it. I heard a kid fell into a lake and drowned because of his helmet (I’m not kidding, someone said that).

Even today, on my street, I’ll see at least half the kids skateboarding, cycling and scootering sans helmet. The stats are crystal-clear: Wear a helmet, no brain damage. Skip the helmet get brain damage.

Doesn’t matter. Folks don’t want to pay money to prevent bad things. They’re not evil. They don’t want to even imagine their child sustaining a major head injury. So they don’t. They look the other way. Nothing to see here. La la la.

They refuse the helmet. It reminds them of Bad Things That Can Happen. And that means they have to admit bad things really can happen. Which is, of course, just ridiculous. Right?

Lots of people won’t buy prevention because it scares them.

Pet clothing and beds: The greatest boondoggle ever

Pleasure, on the other hand, sells like crazy.

I’ll bet the no-helmet parents will plunk down $150 for a nice, fluffy, heated pet bed for their yappy Terrier. This creature is descended from animals that slept on frozen snow and snared foot-long rats out of burrows with their teeth. The chance little Fifi needs a nice bed? Zero. The chance little Fifi will even use the bed? Slightly above zero.

But people buy the pet beds.

Dog beds claim to provide pleasure. If the yappy dog snoozes comfortably in the cushy bed, the owners feel good. Even if Fifi ignores the bed, the owner gets to feel like a Good Dog Owner, which is in itself a good thing.

They’re buying pleasure.

The lesson: Make it Good

This sounds pretty cynical. I guess it is. But you can use it for all manner of good stuff:

Whatever you’re selling, make it a provider of good. Not a preventer of bad.

Don’t sell burglar protection. Sell security.

Don’t sell bike helmets. Sell really cool Transformer helmets that every kid’s gonna want.

Sell a ‘good’, not a preventer of ‘bad’, and you’ll beat your less savvy competitors.

Other stuff


Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. I’d revise that statement to: “People buy pleasure, not prevention – unless they’re buying health insurance.”
    I certainly haven’t paid Aetna a king’s ransom in the last few years for pleasure’s sake. Heh!

  2. Great post Ian, and you draw attention to a common challenge in marketing certain products and services. The insurance industry, particularly life insurance are tough ones – people tend not to like discussing the various ways in which they could get sick or die, and you often see the marketing centred around things like “peace of mind” or “family assurance”.
    It’s always good to see what the benefits overall are, even perhaps the fringe ones as these can help create the messages that make it easier to sell such products.

  3. So instead of the new anti-smoking campaign (photos of rotten teeth and diseased lungs), maybe we should have testimonials from former smokers telling how much better they feel now. Has anyone actually tried that?

  4. Isn’t it funny how we sit and read a post like this, stop and thnk about what we are doing with selling our own products and then think should I make a comment?
    Well I’d better had so here goes Ian.
    This post is cool and although I KNOW that my “service” is doing good maybe I havent quite got that bit at the forefront. I tend to focus on the straighforward benefits of the “service” and then mention all the other good that it will be doing.
    Clarity Karen… clarity… on with my thinking cap 🙂
    hmmm this marketing is more than meets the eye!

  5. Ian,
    Great post, though I shuddered at your stories from the bike shop.
    What you say is certainly true. I’d put it another way.
    Many people refuse to think BAD things will happen to them… that’s why they don’t buy bike helmets.
    But many people desperately believe that STATISTICALLY NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE GOOD things will happen to them… that’s why they buy lottery tickets.
    Maybe the key is to include a free lottery ticket with each bike helmet sale. 🙂

  6. Great paradigm focus. I instantly thought of life insurance also.
    Rather than focusing on how cool and responsible a life-insured parent/person is, they do seem to focus on the dying aspect or “pennies a day” cheapness.
    Seems like they’ve should been investing to propagandize a public persona of the model ethical insurance holder who retains the most social status. How could they have missed this? Perhaps they needed to hire you at some exorbitant rate.

  7. Great post, Ian, but I think a bit more should be added.
    I think that prevention marketing can work under the right environmental circumstances: there’s enough word-of-mouth going around nowadays (at least throughout my circles of friends) about no-helmet horror stories. As a new cyclist in a new city, I definitely took the bike shop’s advice when he said that I need a helmet.
    And wouldn’t you know it – a year later I had a bad fall – the helmet definitely did its job in protecting my head. Now even I’m a helmet advocate to all of my friends, and many of them who are just getting into cycling (and snowboarding) are starting to wear helmets. However, I haven’t been able to convert many of my friends who currently don’t wear helmets to wear a helmet.
    In your anecdote, parents were using ‘helmet horror stories,’ as well as their habits growing up, to combat your ‘no-helmet horror story,’ and spread their views down to their kids. Perhaps the scare tactic would have a different effectiveness on adults who are first-time bike purchasers.
    Phillip McLean asked about changing the focus of anti-smoking ads. Without any real data and based on my own intuition, I’d say that the ‘gross-rotting-teeth’ campaigns probably do well for preventing non-smokers from picking up the habit, and that the ‘feel-good’ campaigns would probably be suited best for a campaign that is aimed to get current smokers to quit smoking… but who knows?
    Does anyone here have an anti-smoking budget that they’d like to test out? 🙂

  8. Yes, prevention does not sell. But cure does. Having worked previously in health care, I’ve seen that people (or at least in this culture) won’t (or at least rarely) take simple actions to prevent something bad from happening; but once something bad does happen they’ll take action, and even then take action to prevent that bad thing from happening again (prevention finally sells, after the head hits the pavement, sans helmet, and high medical bills ensue, to use your example).
    But pairing prevention and pleasure? – shouldn’t the pair have been pain vs. pleasure? Aren’t people more motivated by pain (if not present pain, the very real, viscerally-felt fear of pain) and pain will outsell pleasure any day? Maybe it’s the context that makes the difference?

  9. @David I’ve noticed that prevention seems even worse than pain. If someone’s already feeling pain, they’re all about fixing it. My favorite example is in marketing: Reputation management. No one wants to pay for it, UNTIL someone’s got 3 pages ranking that say how evil they are. THEN they’re all over it.

  10. Isn’t this different from person to person. Some people are triggered by fear and will listen to prevention and others are more triggered by happiness.
    I don’t think you can make a rule that always fits.
    It is important to try to find out which one your customer is.

  11. Excellent post – the whole pleasure vs pain principle is a key point in understanding the psychological underpinnings of making personal changes (which is a key interest of mine – how folks can motivate themselves to jump the hurdles between where they are and where they want to be). I’d never thought of it in terms of marketing, though – but I have to admit, I get pissed off at TV commercials that play on the fear of pain. Now, how can we square this with the studies that show people change their behavior more often because to avoid pain, less often in pursuit of a pleasure?

  12. Great post! How can we change our attitudes about prevention? We need to make prevention more pleasurable. Your pet clothing example made me LOL! But maybe that’s the model. We seem to be able to help other people (and pets) prevent things, but not ourselves.
    There are so many examples, especially in health care. We all want to do things that harm our bodies and make us feel good in the short term (smoke, drink, eat, engage in physically risky activities), and then when we’ve reached the breaking point, we want a magic pill for a cure.

  13. This is a really insightful post that I agree with (the facts don’t lie).
    For those who missed it, I’d like to redirect you back up to the comment made by Philip, it’s an interesting take and another good example of what Ian is talking about here.

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