Holidays From The Self: Moving Marketing Past Maslow’s Cliché


“To find one’s life in the deepest sense... A man must lose that life.

That is to say, he must have the power of entire self-surrender”

Hamilton Wright Mabie

Maslow’s cliché 

Marketing has a peculiar penchant for clinging on to old and outmoded models of human motivation. 

The so-called ‘AIDA’ theory of advertising for example. It posits that advertising works in a linear sequential manner: Awareness > Interest > Desire > Action. It dates from 1898, and was developed to explain the mechanisms of selling insurance. And yet parts of marketingland still stubbornly and uncritically refuse to let go of it.

Marketingland also likes to subscribe to the notion of the the division of the brain into the left- and right -hand hemispheres with one side containing rational processes, the other the emotional. I suppose the existence of some kind of neurological Berlin wall separating our rational and emotional processes must be comforting for some. Though it’s a view of the construction of the human brain that neuroscientists just don’t subscribe to anymore.

And then there’s Maslow’s so-called Hierarchy of Human Needs. 

Dating from 1943, Maslow’s ‘Theory of Human Motivation’ is probably the most-cited and least-read of all marketingland’s sources on human psychology.  So it will probably come as a surprise to many that nowhere in Maslow’s original paper does a pyramid actually appear. Or more crucially, that nowhere does he cite any empirical evidence for his assertions. And yet it has entered marketing orthodoxy.  

The part of his thesis that gets most attention from marketingland is of course his argument that people eventually strive for ‘self-actualization’. Maslow defined it thus: 

“The desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming. The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions. It is not necessarily a creative urge although in people who have any capacities for creation it will take this form.”

Let’s be clear. Maslow presented no empirical evidence for his notion of a hierarchy of needs in his paper. What Maslow put forward was  - as his title plainly signalled - a  theory. Though it is one that many a marketing department has swallowed wholesale without question. 

Maslow’s theory is problematic on many levels, but the one I want to address is the notion that human fulfillment is achieved through the self achieving its full potential. 

The fact of the matter is that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is deeply individualistic. It assumes that as one hauls oneself up the hierarchy, one becomes increasingly less dependent on the collective, and increasingly focused on satisfying one’s individual drives and potential. Indeed it assumes that fulfillment is achieved through the pursuit of the individual agenda of the self. It assumes that the end of our journeying and development is the self. As Maslow put it, the need for self-fulfilment “rests upon prior satisfaction of the physiological, safety, love and esteem needs.”

The problematic bit of the language of self-actualization is of course the word ‘self’. Or what we in marketingland do with that word and Maslow’s concept.

Certainly the West lives with the inheritance of the Enlightenment, which elevated the sanctity and sovereignty of the individual. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and all that.

The language of the self is powerful and all pervasive in contemporary culture: self-made, self-discovery, self-knowledge, self-fulfilment, self-improvement, self-help, self-development, self-awareness, and so on. The language of self - the Project Of The Self - runs through agony columns, self-help manuals, self-improvement texts, career-management advice, leadership training, pop psychology, DIY spirituality, psychology, and psychiatry.

Yet only thinking in terms of the self blinds us. It leads us to overestimate our uniqueness as individuals. And it leads us to underestimate the degree to which we are a social species. 

It leads marketing to assume that - in developed economies at least, where basic needs have been fulfilled - its outputs are designed to assist people in their pursuit of being ‘more’, as Maslow put it. That its outputs serve the agenda of self-actualizing, self-awareness, and self-development - putting ever greater distance between being part of the social herd, and exercising ever greater autonomy.

This presents a rather warped view of the human condition. Achieving some kind of pure state of self isn’t a guarantee of fulfillment or happiness. And self-actualization misrepresents the true nature of many of the contributions and experiences that we create for people.

The burden of self-consciousness

Self-awareness isn’t necessarily a blessing. Indeed much of the time it’s a veritable burden. One that humans alone carry.

The burden of self-consciousness haunts our daily lives. It stalks us at almost every waking moment. We are aware of our selves. We question our own mind and its ways of knowing. We examine our actions and motivations, judge ourselves, compare ourselves against our own expectations and those of others. How am I doing? Do I like what I’m doing? Do I like what I am? How am I being seen? Am I dressed suitably for this occasion? Are these shoes appropriate for the office? What are other people thinking? 

Self-consciousness can be alienating and isolating. Our awareness of our selves encourages us to think of ourselves as separate, individual, and unique.  

Yet there is a dimension of the human experience that  our culture’s fixation on the self can occasionally obscure or undervalue.

Transcending and eradicating the self

In considering what he sees as the absurdities of our modern age, in The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy the author Michael Foley notes that the paradox of our lives, of our human condition, is that “the most intense experience of the self is the loss of the self.”

Great music for example, like great sex eradicates our sense of self, our self-consciousness. We literally lose our selves. We call these experiences transcendent because we rise above our individual sense of self and its personal agendas. 

Indeed if we were to recall our most intensely happy moments, the chances are that they were ones in which we were totally unselfconscious, in which we were not thinking about ourselves, and in which our sense of self was joyously, deliriously eradicated or forgotten.

So much for Maslow.

For all the obsessive attention the discovery, development and nurturing of the self receives in our culture, for all our culture’s fixation upon the “I”, we humans have an enduring and deeply-felt need to actually lose our sense of self. We look for ways to leave our selves behind and become, as Goethe put it, welded into one mass, a single body animated by a single spirit.

Work, flow and loss of self

In giving us purpose, work is famously good at providing us with something to lose ourselves in. Or to lose our selves to. 

The American essayist Hamilton Wright Mabie in his essay ‘Freedom From Self-Consciousness’ (in his Essays On Work And Culture) anticipated the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, making the case that for it truly to find expression of his or her powers, the creative spirit must work in a state free of all self-consciousness - what Csikszentmihalyi was later to label the experience of ‘flow’:

“To find one's life in the deepest sense, to bring out and express one's personality, a man must lose that life; that is to say, he must have the power of entire self-surrender. When the inspiration comes, as it does come to all creative spirits, a man must be able to surrender himself to it completely... Great artists have sometimes been great egotists, but not in their greatest hours or works... in those moments in which the vision is clearest a man is always lifted above himself. He escapes for the moment the limitations which ordinarily encircle him as the horizon encircles the sea.”

Destroying the self

We can lose ourselves in tasks - we can indeed become the task - but we can also find shortcuts to this loss of self-consciousness.  

In the quest to escape our selves mankind has been skilled at finding ways of getting out of our heads.  Quite literally. As  Stuart Walton has demonstrated in his wonderfully entertaining book Out Of It, losing our sense of self through intoxication - by whatever means - runs through the history of human civilization. 

It’s no accident that the language of intoxication - “wasted,” “destroyed,” “out of it” -  is the language of the destruction or the escape of the self. We are indeed adept at finding ways of short-circuiting our chronic self-consciousness.

Community and loss of self

There is another source of transcendence, or losing our sense of individual self. We also yearn to lose our isolated, individualised selves in the greater sea of humanity. For the anthropologist Victor Turner, the ability and drive to experience collective ecstasy is a universal capacity of humans. 

The public festival of the Carnival in Europe, for example, was  a season or festival of merrymaking before Lent (although its roots were much more ancient) and was characterized by collective feasting, drinking, game-playing, dancing, anti-establishment irreverence, and a good amount of riotous excess.  

Alexander Orloff vividly captures this spirit of collective, ecstatic joy and celebration:

“The world order collapses, engulfed by darkness where evil phantoms lurk. Mischief grips us, violent passions erupt, we glimpse the dark side of our souls revealing a destructiveness never imagined. Mesmerized, reeling in trance, dancing wildly to the deafening roar of drums, bells, cymbals and flutes, our spirits soar. Briefly abandoning ourselves to the irresistible call we surface spontaneously, liberated, like millions of possessed souls we burst into the brilliance of ecstatic joy, floating on the intoxicating effervescence of free form madness.”

Mikhail Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher and literary theorist and in his work Rabelais and His World, he examined popular culture and folk culture (especially the world of carnival) in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as depicted in the novels of François Rabelais. Bakhtin refers to Goethe’s contemporaneous description of the crowd at the Roman carnival of 1788:

“Crowded together, its members are astonished at themselves.  They are accustomed at other times to seeing each other running hither and thither in confusion, bustling about without order or discipline.  Now this many-headed, many-minded, fickle, blundering monster suddenly sees itself as one noble assembly, welded into one mass, a single body animated by a single spirit.”

Carnival still endures, most famously in Brazil. But we also have more modern renditions of communal joy. We have the ecstasy of losing oneself in the shared thrill of the rock concert.  For some, rave culture approached a spiritual experience in allowing dancers - assisted oftentimes by a healthy dose of drugs - to transcend their sense of selves. And for millions of people around the world there is the joy of the football crowd cheering with one voice at a packed stadium. Indeed for  author Barbara Ehrenreich who’s made a study of collective joy, sporting events today are the primary suppliers of the experience of collective ecstasy.

For the anthropologist Victor Turner, these acts and rituals of communal joy, work to dismantle - at least temporarily - all social structures and hierarchies. Along with other anthropologists such van Gennep he regarded such rituals and experiences as so-called ‘liminal’ experiences. Derived from the Latin meaning threshold, the liminal is separated from ordinary, everyday life. 

In the liminal, the normal rules of our reality  - and our selves - disappear, or are relaxed. Turner called this experience of equals ‘communitas’. At the match, the concert, on the nightclub dancefloor, we become one. We experience the transformation of ourselves from Goethe’s many-headed, many-minded, fickle, blundering monster into a single body animated by a single spirit. 

The conquest of the self

Who has not lost themselves and all track of time in a compelling book? Or absorbed themselves fully in a gripping movie? These are experiences in which we are taken over, our worries, pressures, thoughts and feelings are taken over by something else, and our critical, self-conscious, rationale faculties are suspended.  

In his seminal exploration of the experience of art, John Dewey argued that ”Experience ... at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events.” We are in the idea, and the the idea is in us.

There’s something compelling about being taken over like this. And it is indeed conquest. The critic and essayist Sven Birkets spoke in an interview of the experience of losing one’s self in the act of reading:

“Yes, you get the attention of the reader. But it’s more than that. In real, true, immersed reading, the words from the page are, in effect, replacing the words inside the reader’s head. And since words are the stuff of thought, almost the stuff of consciousness . . . Well, you can see that writing has a very powerful imperialist component. Conquest.”

The intense pleasure and satisfaction we derive from ideas and experiences that conquer our selves is something that Maslow and the chatter about the self completely obscures.

Beyond actualization: Holidays from the self

Marketers talk a lot about ‘self-actualization’ and the role of ideas and brands in helping people achieve and express their individuality. Consciously, deliberately, individually.

We’d do well to heed the words of a neuroscientist that the New Yorker recently cited:

“Though history has made us self-conscious in order to enhance our survival prospects, we still have deep impulses to erase the skull lines in our head and become immersed directly in the river.”

I wonder if the truth of the matter is that much of the power of what we make lies in the fact that it gives us the comfort - and sometimes even the joy - of not being merely a self, but being part of something. 

And as technology fuels both our connectivity and our capacity to build immersive experiences, looking past the groaning cliché of self-actualization feels perhaps rather timely.

As marketers we can give people something to do. We can give people something to be involved in.  Involving tasks eradicate the self. We become the project.

We can give people something to belong to. We can give people ways of donating their selves to communal or tribal memberships, experiencing not self-identity but the shared identity that comes from ideas and ideals that are experienced collectively.

And we can give people something to be lost to. We can give people immersive experiences that they can lose themselves - their selves - in, and to.  Experiences that conquer people’s thoughts and feelings, that are genuinely captivating. That don’t let people out. Stuff that’s consumed uncritically, and unselfconsciously.

So rather than see the role of our brands as being to lift people up the steps of some pyramid, hauling people out of the morass of belonging up to the supposedly exalted heights of ‘self-actualization’, it seems more interesting to ask (at least from time to time) how our brands and the experiences they create can give people a holiday from their selves. After all, there is joy to be had when we escape the burden of our own self-consciousness. 


Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World

David Brooks, ‘Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life’, New Yorker, January 17, 2011

John Dewey, The Experience of Art

Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

Michael Foley, The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy

Alexander Orloff, Carnival!

A.H. Maslow, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Psychological Review, 50, 1943

Sven Birkets, interview in Pif magazine, May 1st 2005

Victor Turner, The Ritual Process

Stuart Walton, Out Of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication