Marketing and Morality - Breaking the Barrier

The world of marketing instantly conjures up images of half-truths and over-the-top imagery. It is one of those professions where the more one seems to tell the truth, the further away one is from it. The following three real examples of marketing techniques illustrate this.

1. A television advert for a famous brand of shampoo highlights its use of pro-vitamins. There is no such thing as a pro-vitamin, it is a made up "weasel-word".

2. The current trend of definitive sounding album compilations "the Greatest Rock Album Ever... Volume 8" - how definitive can such an album be if it has seven predecessors?

3. A manufacturer of crisps ran a promotion which labelled its product "15% larger bag". The actual packet was larger, but the contents had the same amount of crisps as previously.

Of these three promotions, the one closest to a complete falsehood is the third example, the one that states the absolute truth: the bag is indeed 15% bigger, as claimed!

Although marketing uses the latest media, one may be surprised (as I was) to learn that the principles underlying the most modern marketing technique can be found discussed amongst the rabbis, many of whom were themselves involved in business. looking at the principles on which the Jewish people have based their behaviour for centuries, the techniques of the modern marketing world are not so modern after all.

Take the festival of Hanukkah for example. One of the main directives of this festival is Pirsumei Nisa the idea of publicising or advertising the miracle. For the miracle to receive maximum advertising exposure we are told to light the Hanukkah candles in the doorway or by the front windows at "prime time", at dusk, when people are walking home from the workplace and the lights attract maximum attention.

Advertising seeks to place certain perceptions into the mind of the consumer about a product or service. Judaism is likewise concerned about its own perception, that Judaism is seen in the best possible light by its own "consumers". An example of being the concept of Ma'arit Ayin, which concerns a Jew whose action is correct but where the perception of that particular action is deemed improper.

Similarly, the concepts of sanctification and desecration of God's name are strongly based on the idea of how God is perceived in the eyes of others.

Advertising has always been practised; even the most modern marketing techniques have been around in various forms for centuries. The following paragraphs briefly look at some of these marketing tools and will attempt to reflect the Jewish perspective.

The Exclusivity Claim

Advertising has the power to improve the perceived quality of a product by injecting in it an element of glamour and excitement. The advertiser achieves this by depicting certain images and associating them with the product or by making a metaphorical claim such as a particular detergent cleans "like a white tornado". Such "weasel-word stratagems," which instill a perceptive quality that the consumer will appreciate hold no ethical problems within Jewish law.

But, such advertising is on ethically shaky ground in Jewish law when claiming a false exclusivity. A famous example involved a well-known brand of coffee, advertising itself with passion that its coffee is "mountain grown." Since most of the public do not realise that all coffee is mountain grown, this claim creates a false impression of exclusivity in the consumer's mind even though the advert made no claim that competing brands are not mountain grown.

The Loss Leader

Commonly stores offer items as loss-leaders, products offered at below cost price in order to induce people to enter the store. This is ethically sound when there are enough supplies of the loss-leader to satisfy expected demand. If, however, a store offers such a promotion for a limited time period but expects to run out of the product in question well before that date, Judaism says that this might very well violate the interdict of ona'at devarim, lack of good faith. In addition, according to some commentaries, this type of action clearly violates the prohibition of "putting a stumbling block before the blind". Many stores get around this by stating that supplies are limited and, as such, are available on a first come first served basis. This may satisfy the "good faith" imperative. Whether this above caveat does in fact make the advertisement morally acceptable in light of the violation of placing a stumbling block before the blind could very much depend on the interpretation the majority of consumers attach to the advertisement.

The Sale

"Sales" and "special offers" may be more or less ethical. It is quite common to see notices outside shops advertising a closing-down sale. Shops have found these promotions to be so profitable that they are able to run a similar promotion the following year. Indeed, one might even expect a store to have the chutzpah to display a huge advertising banner promoting its "13th annual closing down sale". Such claims where a store is not in the process of closing down might very well come under the Torah prohibition of geneivat da'at - deception.

Early forms of advertising are illustrated in Jewish texts. For example, the Talmud relates a case where a person invites a friend over for a meal knowing that the fellow is unable to accept the invitation. The person thereby violates the concept of geneivat da'at as they receive undeserved goodwill from the guest. A modern business analogy to this could be where a store reduces prices, claiming that it is doing so in sympathy with people due to a current recession. In actuality the store's inventory is too large and it needs to off-load products. It is in this way benefiting from undeserved public good will.

There are many other cases in the Talmud which reflect the ethics of modern marketing. The shopkeeper distributing parched corn to children so that they frequent his store addresses issues of unfair competition. The wine merchant who has obtained monopoly rights in one town and could afford to sell to neighbouring towns at a cheaper cost throws up questions of monopolies and price competition. Feeding cattle special bran or brushing them in a special way in order to make them temporarily appear sleek and fat has its modern application in the art of packaging.

What constitutes legitimate advertising from a Jewish viewpoint? A prime example of how a product can be advertised to maximise its effectiveness can be seen in the Torah when Jacob, wishing to avoid a confrontation with his brother Esau, gives him cattle as a gift. Jacob tells his servants to put distance between the cattle in order to maximise their impact on Esau, showing the gift in its best possible light.

Packaging a product to heighten its attractiveness poses no ethical problems.

A clever jingle or catch phrase helps the public to remember the product does not present a problem as long as the company does not receive undeserved benefit through a public misperception.

A price promotion such as a loss-leader is legitimate when the intention is to supply enough of the product to satisfy demand.

Arguably, any advertising promotion which conveys a benefit either tangible or intangible or informs in a non-deceiving manner can be constituted as morally sound.

Good Business Practice - Where integrity guides business.

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