We had to pinch ourselves.
It was September 2018 and a cursory search for “maslow+advertising” yielded 1,230,000 results. Worse still, if the first twenty or thirty pages were representative of the rest, all of them were recommending Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a starting point for the development of advertising strategy, digital content and social media planning.
A few quotes will paint the picture:
“ One of the basics of all marketing and advertising training is a teaching of Maslow’s needs pyramid…”
“ You can make better ads if you try to go high as possible in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs…”
“ Reaching the top of Maslow’s pyramid of online advertising needs is closer than we all think. Getting there simply requires being the best a brand can be as often and as consistently as possible.”
“ The way we’re going to think about psychology of marketing today is rooted in this dude named Abraham Maslow who famously came up with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s this pyramid-looking chart of basic needs you need to accomplish before moving up the pyramid…”
As a reminder, the dude’s pyramid-looking chart looks like this:
We were talking about Maslow because I’d added him to the list of the myths we were planning to bust in Skip Ad in 5, and Faisal had said, “Yeh, comedy.”
Comedy is the word Faisal applies to all the very stupid things that very smart advertising people think, say and do. He’s been using it a lot recently.
So we decided to check it out to make sure it hadn’t been bust already.
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who believed that the culmination of psychological health was self-actualisation, the sense of fulfillment you get from realising your full potential. The motivating drive or need for self-actualisation was famously described by Maslow’s epigram: “What a man can be, he must be.”
To achieve this state, individuals would first have to satisfy their physiological needs, then their needs for safety, and so on up the pyramid. Fundamental to the theory is the idea that you can’t move up to the next level until you’ve mastered the one below it, like Super Mario.
The hierarchy was postulated by Maslow in a 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation”, and developed into its final form in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality. History doesn’t tell us when the pyramid found its way to Madison Avenue. What we do know is that advertising agencies reacted to it the way Pavlov’s dogs reacted to the sound a bell.
There were a number of things that made it so mouth-watering. It was eminently logical. It catered for all product and service categories. It introduced a tone of academic objectivity to the creative brief. And, most significantly, it suggested that the way to outmanoeuvre the competition was to set out your stall a level or two higher than the ones occupied by your adversaries. So when other toothpastes were fighting cavities at the safety level, your toothpaste could steal a march by occupying the level of love and belonging. The commercial wrote itself: Miss Popularity ditches the guy with the expensive sports car and the dodgy teeth to run off with the James Dean lookalike with shiny pearlers and a Harley.
Maslow was responsible for all of the advertising ideas of the fifties, sixties and seventies.
The early eighties brought Thatcher, Reagan and the apotheosis of the pyramid. It happened suddenly and globally, like AIDS. And it came in the form of a resoundingly rhetorical question: If everybody’s ultimate need was for self-actualisation, what was the point of promising them anything less?
It wasn’t very long before flavoured yoghurts, stain removers, razors , tinned beans, life insurance companies and funeral parlours were invoking the spirit of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Men and women were not only perfectible, they could buy their best selves on Amex.
“The best a man can get” wasn’t inspired by Maslow. It was written by him.
It was at about this point in the advertising business that production values became strategic imperatives in their own right. In pre-production meetings from Johannesburg to Jakarta, brand managers who had once questioned the need for catering on location became obsessed with wardrobe, hairstyles, interior design, hem-lengths, objects-de-art, curtain fabrics, bathroom fittings and the semiotics of luxury. No furnishings were too expensive if they spoke to aspiration; no set was too exotic if it had featured recently in Architectural Digest.
Where once the most acrimonious client-agency arguments revolved around the number of spoonfuls of product a cast of two parents and three children could credibly eat in thirty seconds, the battleground shifted to the subjective, and therefore more explosive, matter of good taste. Agencies with impeccable creative credentials got fired for questioning the dress sense of marketing assistants. I saw a million-dollar production held up for three weeks because the brand manager and the art director couldn’t agree on the width of the protagonist’s lapels.
The nineties refined the eighties. Greed was rebranded as neoliberalism, and the focus of self-actualisation shifted from a frenzied acquisition of brands and labels to a cooler and more deliberate cultivation of mind and body. Especially of body. What you put in it became almost as important as what you put on it. When extroversion turned to introspection, voyeurism became narcissism, and brands evolved to serve it.
In the middle of all this we noticed the beginnings of a strange phenomenon. It wasn’t happening in New York, London, Tokyo or Paris. It was happening in Soweto and Gugulethu, in the slums of Delhi and the barrios of Mexico City, in the shadow worlds of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. Outside of the affluent suburbs of the affluent cities, the sales of staple foods were everywhere in decline. Unilever was reporting it. So too were Nestlé, Kellogg’s, Kraft and the other global players.
They say correlation does not imply causation. What we were looking at in the Nielsen numbers that July in 1995 suggested otherwise. Food sales were declining exactly in line with the increase in mobile phone penetration.
We did field studies. We did ethnographies. We sent anthropologists to Kenya and Kolkata. They came back with one conclusion: people were giving up food for phones.
If people were prioritising the love and belonging that comes with regular and reliable communication over a basic physiological need, then Maslow must have got it wrong. And if Maslow was wrong, everything we had ever done was wrong.
I didn’t want to think about it. But when I couldn’t help thinking about it I told myself that everyone else in the business had probably found out he was wrong a long time ago, in different circumstances and for other reasons, and it just so happened that I was the last person on earth to hear the news. The truth was difficult to establish. There were sixteen million internet users in 1995. Today there are nearly 4.5 billion.
It turns out that Maslow had drawn his conclusions from a study of what he called “the master race”, which was made up of people like Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass and a select one percent of America’s healthiest, brightest and most privileged undergraduates. The only one of his subjects who had been deprived of food, safety or social acceptance was Frederick Douglass, the American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, and he had died in 1895.
Now we know.
But there are 1,230,000 pundits out there who don’t.
From Skip Ad in 5, Ahmed & Torr, 2018.