After the Fall

Remember Psych 101? Abraham Maslow, in his research on human motivation, used a pyramid to show our “hierarchy of needs.” Each building block supports the next level.

The blocks at the bottom represent our most primitive needs: to eat, to have a roof over our heads, to have a feeling of safety and security. As these basics are taken care of, we turn to social needs—the need to belong to a group. Then comes the ego level, or esteem: the need to gain approval. And at the top of the pyramid is self-actualization, the ability to realize one’s potential.

But climbing Maslow’s pyramid is a little like playing Chutes and Ladders. You can be pretty far up when something happens that sends you sliding back down, clutching your homeland-security blanket.

Amazingly, over the last five decades, society has mirrored the Maslow pyramid. And this has been reflected in our advertising and marketing approaches. In the ’50s and early ’60s, the Cold War brought with it the need to feel safe and secure. Students were taught the art of “duck, cover, ass to the windows.” People built fallout shelters in their backyards. Dad worked for the same company his whole life. Mom stayed home and served the kids a nice warm bowl of Campbell’s soup, some Poppin’ Fresh Pillsbury muffins or a tasty piece of Betty Crocker cake.

From the late ’60s to the early ’70s, the importance of the group took over. There was an increase in social action, protest marches, feminism. Belonging was a basic need. Charlie the Tuna was always trying to be picked by Starkist.

Ego and esteem, the next level in the pyramid, were popular in the ’70s and ’80s. Tom Wolfe called the ’70s the “Me Decade.” Social consciousness took a back seat to individual achievement and empowerment. The “singles scene” erupted, as did AIDS, a disease that further separated individuals from the masses. The ’80s saw the emergence of the “personal” computer.

In the late ’80s and ’90s, we arrived at the top of the pyramid—self-actualization. The human body became an art form to be sculpted, tattooed and fed antioxidants. We cocooned and personalized our entertainment by surfing the Net and the cable stations. Even our TV idols were self-involved types—the characters on Seinfeld and Friends.

The ’90s officially ended on Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, with terrorism, corporate corruption and recession, we’ve slid down the pyramid and back to our quest for security, safety and stability. Corporations, as well as individuals, are evaluating their priorities. Risk-taking, once seen as a component of corporate success, has been replaced by corporate honesty and integrity.

We’ll never go back to the days of Ozzie and Harriet. But knowing this, how can businesses and smart advertisers interpret society’s clear and present need for a sense of security in their messages?

They might start by shooting straight. Security should be at the core of their messaging. Consumers today have little tolerance for hype. “Be all you can be” wouldn’t work today, nor would Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good.”

Advertisers who stress brand qualities like dependability, consistency and customer service will have the advantage. This is a particularly good time for “challenger” brands to make their move, simply because they carry no baggage from past messaging. It’s also an opportunity to keep the message consistent across all platforms. Consistency translates as trust and comfort.

After the security phase passes? We’ll be ready to move up to social motivation again. Anybody still have their love beads?

For the Record: The Inside the Pitch story analyzing BMW’s Western Region review [Nov. 24] incorrectly suggested that McCann-Erickson does not have a car account. McCann handles General Motors corporate and Buick out of Troy, Mich. In the same story, the agency name McCaffrey & McCall was misspelled. In the 25th-anniversary issue [Nov. 17], the name of Coca-Cola CEO Doug Daft was misspelled in the Portfolio entry on Steve Heyer.