Immoral Advertising Tactics?

Hello Rabbi and Mrs. Lapin.

You’ve often spoken of the moral benefit of business and “ethical capitalism.” I’m an ardent capitalist and believe wholeheartedly in the good that business has done and will continue to do. I’ve spent my entire life in business, whether it be as a paperboy, dishwasher, or as a computer network engineer, and love it.

I did want to get your thoughts about something that troubles me. Do you believe there is danger, or even immorality in some of the tactics used in advertising these days? For example, are marketers being deceitful when they push the “magic buttons” of our subconscious that make us want to buy, or at the very least stimulate our interest? Does the issue stop with advertising? Can salespeople also be walking this line?


Dear Dennis,

How wonderful it would be if more young people saw how the trajectory from paperboy to dishwasher to computer network engineer works. One of the reasons we believe that laws raising the minimum permissible wage are immoral is because they interfere with the freedom of two people to negotiate their own financial relationship, an important part of God’s plan for human economic interaction.  One of the reasons we believe that minimum wage laws are stupid is that they remove entry-level opportunities and keep young people or those without necessary skills from getting on the ladder to success. In the real world, employers hire people who can help them make a profit. If an employee causes them to lose money because his value is less than his salary, then the company will replace him with machinery or hire only employees who have more to offer.

Your question about immoral advertising practices also relates to the real world.  On a simple emotional level it is easy to applaud politicians who pass truth-in-advertising laws.  (Sadly they then exempt themselves.  The great advertising entrepreneur, David Ogilvy said that he’d never do political advertising–it’s too dishonest. And he never did!)  In the real world, the troubling question is who gets to decide what is true advertising?   

Certainly, it is easy to cross a line and make spurious claims or doctor pictures in order to suggest outrageous results, let’s say for cosmetics. Misleading or outright lying is not acceptable.  When a used car salesman conceals a known fault with a particular vehicle he has stepped way over the line of the ideal: a transparent transaction. 

However, you aren’t asking about lying, per se, but rather about enticing. Isn’t that what we all must do to get the attention of those we want to attract?

Few girls go on a first date with an interesting gentleman without wearing makeup and an attractive outfit.  (My less serious reason for why men should pay for a date is because she has already invested considerable time and not insignificant funds in her preparation for the date).  Is she engaging in questionable behavior by pushing the magic buttons of his subconscious?  We don’t think so.

A teacher might entice students by crafting interesting lessons rather than simply reading aloud from the textbook. She might wear a themed sweater, offer incentives or create a game to capture easily distracted minds. Firefighters who wanted people to know what to do if their clothes catch on fire developed an easily remembered mantra, “Stop, drop and roll,” rather than producing a multi-paragraph essay. Rabbis and pastors work hard on the titles for their presentations hoping to lure an audience, arouse curiosity, and, as you put it, stimulate our interest.

When marketers (and we include ourselves among them) use attractive pictures, mellifluous language and honest sales offers, they are doing exactly the same thing.

Is there an ambiguous, gray line in sales techniques that assert psychological pressure or cater to people’s worst impulses? Certainly. However, it would be close to, if not impossible, to label exactly where that line veers too close to wrongdoing in general terms. The questions to ask oneself are, first, am I concealing any aspect of the product which, if made known would end the customer’s interest?  Second, am I making untrue statements about the product? 

Ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that, after 120 years, when each of us arrives for a Heavenly life review,  the first question God will ask us is if we were honest in our business dealings. Keeping that in mind should guide each business owner or salesperson on the right path.  Finding a mentor who understands both business and morality can also be helpful. 

Like hundreds of thousands of other readers who have found our book,  Business Secrets from the Bible to be both enlightening and practical, you also might find value in its potential to transform your business life.  In a further attempt to gain your interest, we point out that it boasts a very attractive cover design and, what is more, it is on sale this week. 

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


6 thoughts on “Immoral Advertising Tactics?”

  1. If lying/hiding a known ‘defect’ is over the line, why isn’t makeup the same? You count makeup as an investment by the female but it is also deception.

    1. A deception is trickery perpetrated without the injured party being aware. Wearing makeup is hardly done in secret nor is it misleading or being dishonest. If you are unaware or cannot comprehend that I am wearing makeup or a slimming black dress or vertical stripes to appear taller., then you are “ripe for the pickin’. ” Are you a “victim” because someone is wearing makeup?

    2. Is polishing an apple to make it more appealing “hiding a known defect”? If a man or a woman, for example, has a medical diagnosis and doesn’t share it before marriage (not on the first date, but as things move along) then they married under false pretenses. But, looking your best is important for both sides and make-up is a standard part of women’s dress.

  2. Dear Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin,
    I couldn’t agree more with you regarding the minimum wage laws. When I was a kid I could shovel snow (for $1 or $2) in the winter and cut grass in the summer and when I was twelve I caddied at the local country club. In 1960 and 1961 I could earn as much as six dollars (counting tips) carrying doubles (two bags) and I thought that was great! ( 4-5 hours) Later when I turned sixteen, I got a job at the local Howard Johnson restaurant as a bus boy ($0.85/Hr. plus 10 % of the waitresses tips). My sisters baby sat until they were old enough (16) to work at the same restaurant as waitresses. Back to caddying, the smaller or younger kids could only carry one bag and thus earned half as much but were glad to have the opportunity. My older sister and I put ourselves through college with the earnings from our part-time and summer jobs. Later, the minimum wage laws pretty much forced country clubs to invest in golf carts instead of hiring caddies. That’s a shame because for many of the kids who caddied the relationships that they formed with their patrons and the mentoring that the kids got from them was a better relationship than they could get at home (often a home with a single parent). As a result of these early experiences, after college I never had a job. I was always self employed. I’m sure that with the hours that I put in I often didn’t earn the minimum wage but who cares? If I wanted to work sixteen hours a day there was no one from the government telling me that I could not do so! Being self-employed I could work as many hours as I wanted!! In my opinion, that’s one of the reasons that many first or second generation immigrants do so well in America.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Exactly Rich–
      Interestingly enough, I recently noted that we had a long tradition of developing self-sufficiency in American youngsters whereas Europe tended to coddle theirs. The results spoke for themselves.

    2. Your experience sounds like that of my father. He was 13, one of 8 kids, and helped sustain the household during the Depression. He caddied during the day, and then in the evening went swimming in the water traps on the course. He retrieved lost golf balls from the water traps, which he then sold back to those golfers who lost them for some extra pocket money. The relationships he developed with what really was the upper crust in his hometown were invaluable later on, as he was able to leverage them after he served in WWII into things like bank loans, job leads and recommendations, etc. Those people who “protect” their offspring from the “hardship” of work really rob them of experiences that can be priceless.

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