Harold Camping is regarded by many as a fool. He was widely ridiculed for his prediction that the world would end on May 21, 2011, with a violent earthquake that would suck every sinner into Hell. Once that day came and went without 98 percent of our planet’s population falling into Satan’s barbecue pit, Camping changed his tune. God had spared the world…for five months.
Today, Oct. 21, 2011, is supposed to be the Apocalypse.
The majority of Americans may say he’s crazy, but that doesn’t mean he’s not smart. Media coverage of the May 21 prediction dominated the airwaves in the months leading up to our supposed Doomsday. As a result, he accumulated a surprising number of loyal followers who were willing to take drastic measures to spread the word.
One man spent his entire life savings, which was in the low six-figures, for the country-wide advertising campaign. Another group of people quit their jobs and started caravanning around the country to spread Camping’s beliefs.
Some PR professionals would probably sacrifice a limb to rally up that kind of support for their clients. Regardless of what Camping’s message was, he knew how to stir up a certain passion in people that is commonly known as “fear.” Yes, his followers wanted to get into Heaven. But I’m sure they were more concerned with not going to Hell. And although fear-based tactics are typically seen as tacky and manipulative, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that they work. Exhibit A: Fox News.
The problem with using fear as the catalyst to inspire your stakeholders is that fear can easily be overtaken by logic. You can only cry wolf so many times before the town stops listening. Now that Camping has lost his credibility to the public, it’s not surprising to see very few news stories covering today’s expected Armageddon. He was wrong once before (actually twice if you count a similar prediction he made in 1994), so what motivation do people have to believe him now?
The lesson to be learned from this is that fear-based tactics can work, but they rely on the ignorance of the audience to sustain their momentum. If the people on the receiving end of the message wise up, not only will they stop believing the message itself, they’ll also feel deceived and lose all trust in the source of the message.
However, at 90 years old and in ailing health, Camping probably doesn’t care about his followers losing faith in him at this point. In an extremely unethical move, he revealed that his company, Christian Family Radio, would not be returning the money donated to his “end of the world” cause. Now he’s got thousands of dollars in his pocket thanks to all the people who were duped into believing his fire-and-brimstone radio broadcasts.
If today really is the end, it’ll be interesting to see what The Man Upstairs has to say about that.