Once upon a time, the verbs of advertising were need and want. Today you're more likely to hear a different verb.
"You deserve Virgin Mobile," intones an echo-chamber voice in a recent TV commercial. "You deserve NEW, NOW!" shouts a billboard for a housing development in the San Francisco Bay Area. "The most original people deserve the most original vodka," reads the tagline on a series of ads for Stoli that feature Playboy's Hugh Hefner, Twitter's Biz Stone, and other famous or almost-famous folk. Weight-loss products from motivational speaker Tony Robbins claim to give you "the body you deserve" (thin and healthy). A 2012 book from the popular financial writer Suze Orman promises "the future you deserve" (rich and happy).
Poke around a bit, and you'll quickly discover that everyone — kids, young adults, teachers, you! — deserves "the best." More specifically, you deserve love, happiness, a comfortable retirement (or an early one), and eco-friendly clothing. Like Al Franken's Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, whose "daily affirmation" began "I deserve good things," it seems we all have it coming, and it's all good.
How did this happen? Has the meaning of "deserve" changed over time, to signify "a massive shift to an entitlement culture," as one politically conservative Internet forum has suggested, or a sinister corporate plot "sucker us into buying stupid crap," as one marketing critic puts it?
Neither, as it turns out. The real story of the rise of "deserve" has to do with two mass-market products: hamburgers and hair dye. And it goes back four decades.
First, though, a bit of etymological and historical context. For centuries after "deserve" entered English from French deservir (to merit or earn) in the 13th century, to "get what you deserve" often meant to be punished or rebuked. Chaucer wrote in The Legend of Good Women (late 14th century) of "this woman who has given so little penance to you who have deserved to suffer more sorely"; three centuries later, Shakespeare had Helena ask, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "When at your hands did I deserve this scorn?" The French monarchist Joseph de Maistre's 1811 observation that "Every nation has the government it deserves" ("Toute nation a la gouvernement qu'elle mérite") does not bespeak a sunny view of the world.
Even in the 20th century, "deserve" could be pessimistically shaded, as in the fashion designer Coco Chanel's famous warning that "at 50, you get the face that you deserve." (This ambiguous sense of "deserve" was spoofed in the 2008 film The Dark Knight, in which The Joker says, "This town deserves a better class of criminal, and I'm gonna give it to 'em!")
Until the 1970s, ads that used "deserve" often betrayed this negative tilt. Wendell Wilkie, running against FDR in 1940, for a time used the bitter slogan "Perhaps Roosevelt is all you deserve." Deserve equaled are worthy of in a 1955 ad for dog food that appeared in Life magazine: "Show your pet that you deserve his confidence." Only rich people could confidently (yet discreetly) claim to deserve their perks. A small black-and-white ad in the April 1963 issue of the American Bar Association Journal told its readers to "Sit back. Relax. You deserve it." The ad was for first-class travel on the Holland-America cruise line, a luxury few people could afford then (or now).
Back then, most ads promised to solve a problem, often an embarrassing one — the heartbreak of psoriasis, the social shunning of "halitosis" (a word coined by Listerine to sell mouthwash). When they weren't appealing to anxiety, ads were promising happiness ("She's engaged! She's lovely! She uses Pond's!"), attractiveness ("New Bodies for Old!"), or vitality ("The Pause That Refreshes").
Then, in the early 1970s, two ad campaigns — one for McDonald's, the other for L'Oreal — changed what marketers call "the value proposition." Instead of giving us promises or warnings, these ads offered reassurance and encouragement.
McDonald's came first, in 1971, with "You Deserve a Break Today."
Far from being a carefully plotted piece of brainwashing, "You Deserve a Break Today" was written at the very last minute as "an act of desperation." Keith Reinhard, the DDB creative director responsible for the campaign, told The Madison Avenue Journal in 2009 that the ad was meant to be about a fantasy vacation to "the McDonald's Islands," and the jingle invited customers to "get up and get away." But lawyers at McDonald's nixed the line on the second day of the shoot because "some root beer stands in Nebraska or someplace were advertising themselves as Islands of Pleasure."
A frantic Reinhard needed a replacement line for the island-theme lyric he'd come up with — "We're so near yet so far away, so get up and get away" — because "so near yet so far away" no longer made sense. He went back to interviews the agency had done with homemakers. "Give me a break," the women had said, "I get all the stuff."
Reinhard: "And we said, ‘Okay, we have got to put the word break on these notes." The team began "juggling and brainstorming. "‘You deserve...' You deserve a break today. Does that work?" It worked. The campaign ran for much of the next 19 years and was named one of CNET's top ad campaigns of the 20th century. (Watch a 1981 version of the ad.)
L'Oreal's groundbreaking slogan for Preference hair color, "Because I'm Worth It," was created in 1973, just two years after "You Deserve a Break Today." The message is similar, but the creative process was dramatically different. As Malcolm Gladwell relates in a 1999 article for the New Yorker, "True Colors," the slogan was written by Ilon Specht, a 23-year-old college dropout working as a copywriter for the New York ad agency McCann-Erickson. Working in an industry still dominated by "Mad Men"–era men, Specht "could just see that they had this traditional view of women," she told Gladwell, "and my feeling was that I'm not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me that they were doing. ... I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it."
Cybill Shepherd in a 1991 ad for Preference by L'Oreal. Via Wall Street Journal.
"The power of the commercial," Gladwell writes, "was originally thought to lie in its subtle justification of the fact that Preference cost ten cents more than [rival Clairol's] Nice 'n Easy. But it quickly became obvious that the last line was the one that counted. On the strength of ‘Because I'm worth it,' Preference began stealing market share from Clairol." L'Oreal has used the slogan continuously for 40 years, changing only the pronoun ("Because you're worth it," then "Because we're worth it.") In 1997 L'Oreal appropriated the slogan — originally intended solely for one brand of hair color — as the tagline for the entire company. (In a brazen bit of imitation, or homage, Because I'm Worth It became the title of one of the hugely popular "Gossip Girl" books.)
Once you deserve it/you're worth it proved successful, other advertisers rushed to copy the formula: a Vermont pharmacy ("Personal service you deserve"), a Minnesota massage studio (You're Worth It), a college newspaper ("Creating the Sun-Star you deserve"), a network game show ("You Deserve It").
So pervasive is the "deserving" message today that you'd think we could no longer be surprised by it, but one recent campaign found a way to break through. In 2012 the Lung Cancer Alliance introduced a series of bus-shelter ads large headlines proclaiming that various categories of people "deserve to die": cat lovers, hipsters, the tattooed, the smug.
Image via AdRants.
The negative "deserve" harks back to Chaucer's, Shakespeare's, and Wilkie's use of the word, but the shock is temporary: The URL attached to the ads is NoOneDeservesToDie.org. Go there and you'll read the following disclaimer beneath the photos: "Many people believe that if you have lung cancer you did something to deserve it. It sounds absurd, but it's true. Lung cancer doesn't discriminate and neither should you."
As for any distress you experience upon seeing the ads — well, I suppose the Lung Cancer Alliance would say you deserve it.