Ed. Note: Lung Trouble is a popular media and psycholinguistics column. The title comes from a line in Fat City, the Leonard Gardner book John Huston turned into a pretty okay movie.

“Blessed” and the Universal Truth

You have to admire “blessed.” It’s the answer my neighbor gives when you ask him how things are going. “Blessed” is essentially agnostic, more of an attitudinal aspiration than a real reverence for anything, but it’s got all the hallmarks of great branding: it’s catchy, elevated, and it appeals to what the marketing scholar Margo Berman calls a “universal truth.” 🤮

It’s a pretty gauzy term, but according to Berman’s The Copywriter’s Toolkit: A Complete Guide to Strategic Advertising Copy, it’s used by marketers to mean “an instantly understood statement that is accepted as fact regardless of gender, age or nationality.” Well okay, a little more precision might’ve helped, but I can work with this.

Early-aughts backpack-rapper and apparent Lin-Manuel Miranda bully Immortal Technique (“Universal truth is not measured in mass appeal”) might quibble with Berman’s definition, and Berman indeed points to a bunch of disputable-to-say-the-least truisms about hard work paying off and concentrating when you’re hungry, but I’m not trying to go all Derrida on it.


This ad came out in 2016, you guys. This is what the Trump Presidency has done to us. It feels like this happened decades ago.

All fasting monk quandaries aside, we get it: people don’t like being hungry; you’re reminding them of that fact. If not entirely universal, it’s at least a pretty good bet for any one audience member. The lesson Berman is teaching is that in order to sell sodee pop you’ve got to say something no one’s going to disagree with.

“Hunger bad,” as a truth, is so elemental—so buried in the foundations of Maslow’s whole pyramid scheme—that no one would be dorky enough to call it a cliché, because no one’s actually even claiming this is new information, right? Has anyone ever uttered the words “hunger is bad” in front of you? These majoritarian physiological truths, aside from maybe being a little prejudicial to people with atypical physiological needs (??? I don’t know, I’m just trying to cover all my bases), are not the worst of the offenders when it comes to marketing cliché. Those all come when you push up the hierarchy, toward the self-actualization realm.

Nike - Just Do It

“Do what?” asks the square.

Needs vs “Real Needs”

You could probably get an anarcho-primitivist to agree that the bottom—the “physiological needs”—section of Maslow’s hierarchy is necessary to human existence, but that’s about all. Those dudes seem unable to conceive of humans as anything other than, like, weird hypothetical units, in the same way they can’t seem to grasp any form of finance unmoored from metal backing and therefore believe it should not exist. Some of them literally saw a mathematical equation in a NewGrounds.com animation that equated women to evil and then they went and believed it for the next fifteen years. Nuance, subtlety and the counterintuitively complex are their undeclared enemies. For them, life should be a series of tasks conquerable with nothing but common sense and a little willingness to work hard. Laws should be stripped to what’s comprehensible, as should any overarching narrative. Superhero movies, with their mawkishly galactic endgames and their vague swipes at town hall politics, occur to this crowd as high art.

How does one say something to these people and their bitter cultural enemies? Something no one will disagree with across an enormous spectrum of demographics? You need some kind of in-crowd signal, some Ichthus. Some plausibly deniable Larry Craig foot-tap gesture that works on some audience members and glides right by the rest.

Welcome the psychographic, the next-level method of people-classification that takes the woozier—the psychological and spiritual—tranches of Maslow’s pyramid as their starting point.

Taco Bell Psychographic

Taco Bell Psychographic: Dudes, Edgy

Taco Bell’s is the big psychographic example everyone talks about. Their main customer profile, which some marketing nerds call an AIO (or Activities Interests Opinions) variable, is essentially “the gamer.” You know these people: there’s some overlap with incels, but also some with athletes. Lots of dudes whose focuses tend to be on value, novelty and the simple binary question “is it a LOT of food?” Some women also, but best not to generalize these.

“Is it a lot of food” is an easy question to answer as a marketer. When the needs get mistier, however—when we move into the “love/belonging,” “esteem” and “self-actualization” levels of Maslow’s hierarchy (pictured above)—things start getting weird. Firstly, no longer is it food that’s being sold. Secondly, no longer is it the client company doing the selling. Instead, it’s the marketer, and by the time the ad’s over, they’ve already finished the sale. In this gambit, it’s the marketer offering up something in the “Esteem” category—i.e. the in-crowd shibboleth—as a freebie.

Cómo?

Cómo?

#Winning

So what, praytell, are we adding to the mix? If we’re now trying to offer something like “belonging” or “esteem,” that sounds like the tone might be a little cult-y, right? As we’ll see, that’s usually the marketing move if there is no product that satisfies a lower-tranch Maslow need (that is, with Goop and doTerra and CLA and bullet coffee, and all that self-actualization snake oil). But when the marketer has something physical to point to, a lighter touch is required. The way to add “belonging” to the mix in these cases is to dig real deep into the psychographic and mimic the jargon, a more or less innocuous gesture.

And the most unsubtle “belonging”-based commercials will leave it at that, right? These are the crappy commercials that toss a bunch of your jargon back at you in a ham-handed way, the commercial equivalent of when a politician name-drops the generic “local color” restaurant. In Miami, that restaurant is Versailles, an okay to okay-adjacent Cuban place.

In Columbus, at Ohio State, that place is Sloopy’s, which Barack Obama called “Sloppy’s” during his commencement remarks at my graduation ceremony. Obama was the only reason I decided to go, and I remember being really impressed with the exhaustedly good-natured way he appealed for mercy after being told from off-stage that he’d misspoken the restaurant name. He almost demanded forgiveness of us. “It was a long plane ride,” he said, with that rye, almost-snarling smile he liked to affect when he was acting a little hip.

Haaaaaang on. Sloopy, Hang on.

The way to your audience’s heart when you have something real to sell is to use your audience’s brand of humor. It’s “Belonging Lite®.” Obama’s pretty good at that. In a room of 10,000, he’s probably the guy capable of being comfortable around the largest number of the others, individually. And this tonal concordance achieved by the President with his little off-handed flub recovery is likely to have been just a happy accident—Obama was, after all, in a very similar mental place to a lot of these new graduates. He was in the midst of his reelection victory lap, worn out and hopeful, a survivor, but with the work having only just begun.

Humor, but not just any humor: the specific TEXTURE of humor your audience—or in the case of the advertisers, your intended psychographic—can best commiserate with. This was the big marketing breakthrough of Gen X, whose only President thus far has been Obama. Cue the ’90s irony. Cue the X-tremity. In 1998, white America was basically just Clueless and Korn.

Macho Man Randy Savage Slim Jim

…and Macho Man.

Selling Nothing

Humor sells food because food is still a thing that can be sold, a commodity. But you can’t use humor to sell nothing. To sell nothing, like an aura or some shit, like whatever Essential Oils sell, what you need is something more serious, some reaffirming cliché—and not just any cliché, but something that looks novel given the communicative mores of the time.

“#YOLO?”

According to my students, its influence has waned (thankfully), but it’s got all the ingredients. For a second there it sounded modern. It can be broadly applied. It’s got a carpé diem ring to it.

Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

Speaking of carpé diem, remember that time Andrew Marvell was trying to mack on that girl in 17th century England so he wrote her a horrorporn in which worms, uh… Anyway, #YOLO

Perhaps, “blessed” is the example I’m looking for? I wasn’t really intending to go there. I like that my neighbor says it. It’s charming.

“Blessed,” at any rate, is also a little old hat, but “blessed” is more elemental. It’s not selling anything physiological, sure, but it’s not quite at the love and belonging stage either. “Blessed” sells safety, security. It’s not simply a reminder of one’s duty to appreciate but an insistence that there’s something there to be appreciated.

Safety, though, is in at least one regard a lot like the needs at the higher levels. The thing about these needs for which there’s no physical product, no objective correlative, no little physical iteration: you can pretend you’ve got it even when you don’t. You can convince yourself the product’s fulfilled your needs. Because you never had a very good sense of what “fulfilling” these abstract “needs” looked like.

It’s like writing a story, or a poem, or a blog post, and convincing yourself you’ve made your point, that you’ve maxed out your faculties or done something earth-shattering, or even spent the majority of the time making sense. That is, lying to yourself so you can push some nonsense out into the world, clap shut the laptop and do whatever you’d rather be doing than this.

Paris Concert Poster, May 2016