My new column for the Visual Thesaurus, “The Ads We Deserve,” looks at how “you deserve” and “you’re worth it” have come to dominate advertising language. From cell phones (“You deserve Virgin Mobile”) to Stolichnaya (“The most original people deserve the most original vodka”) to a network game show (“You Deserve It”), advertisers flatter our sense of self-worth – a big shift from decades past, when ads played to fears, anxieties, and desires for self-improvement. The transformation has been taking place for four decades, ever since McDonald’s told families “You Deserve a Break Today” and a L’Oreal spokeswoman said she paid more for hair coloring “Because I’m Worth It.”
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers, but here’s a taste – hey, you’re worth it!
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!”)