In 1943, an anthropologist named Abraham Maslow published a paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” that, while it appeared only in an obscure academic journal, has since gone on to influence generations of marketers. Maslow’s theory posited that human needs fall into categories. The bottom two are essential for mere survival—physiological (food, sleep, etc.) and safety (shelter, employment, etc.). But above these lay the “social” and “ego” needs. These are what motivate people to satiate deeper desires: self-esteem, respect from others, a feeling of belonging. In a word: acceptance.
The intense human desire to fit in probably never required a research paper to establish its validity. After all, it’s rooted in our daily lives. And that is why, as the ads on these pages show, it’s also been a favorite theme for marketers. The quest for social approval—the desire to belong to a group—is so universal that it’s worked to sell just about anything, be it Chevy’s Camaro in 1969 (right) or Tommy Hilfiger’s hipster threads of 2012 (opposite). “There’s a historical as well as societal foundation for utilizing the social group as a way of capturing the zeitgeist,” said psychologist Robert Passikoff, founder of New York-based consultancy Brand Keys. “It’s a cultural and social imperative: Nobody wants to be uncool, and that’s why these ads are virtually the same.”
Both ads present coolness as shopping’s blissful by-product. Buy this brand and you’ll be legit; you’ll be...one of us. What’s more, the beauty of the tactic isn’t just efficacy, but durability. “It adapts to the cultural imperative of the times,” Passikoff explained, which is to say: The brands can change, as can the physical appearance of the “in” crowd selling it. But the promise remains unbroken irrespective of decade or hairstyle.
In 1969, Chevy was two years into positioning its Camaro to compete with Ford’s Mustang—the quintessential two-seater guy car. And while the Camaro’s prime selling point was its 300-horsepower 350 V8 engine, GM wasn’t just aiming for the bad-boy driver. Significantly, the ad shows both men and women. They were stylish, smart and all-American, with a touch of irreverence. Note the way these kids stare out of the ad. They’re not showing off; they’re beckoning you to come for a ride.
Jump ahead 43 years, and Tommy Hilfiger is using the same implied promise to sell his clothing in the ad. In fact, it almost looks like he’s used the Camaro’s models, too—after a detour to the makeup trailer and some trips to the weight room, maybe. Buzzed about since their debut during the holiday 2010 shopping season, “The Hilfigers”—a mixed breed of Kennedy and Royal Tenenbaum—lack the snotty poise common in most designer ads. That’s because this ad isn’t your usual fashion flip-off, but an invitation. Hovering just behind those wry glances is the promise of acceptance, validation and belonging—the same that the Chevy kids were offering. In fact, the brand’s press release describes The Hilfigers as belonging to a “twisted country club that anyone can join.”
That’s right, anyone—including you.