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?
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