Illicit Methods Of Advertising

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

Advertisers like to describe their profession as a form of communication, since they provide information to the general public about various products and services available. In practice they are far more involved in the fine art of persuasion, as their primary goal is to get the item sold. To this purpose they employ many different means, some of which can pose serious ethical problems.

For example, an advertiser may choose to market his product as “the best type on the market”, even though he knows that there are superior products available. In this case he is deliberately misleading the customer. Of course, most customers are not impressed by such a claim of superiority but this does not detract from the misleading tone of the advertisement, since some customers might still be swayed by this spurious claim. Even if his claim is not believed by anyone, it is still forbidden to lie about a product.

Another common advertising stratagem is “bait and switch”, which involves the advertising of a popular item at a bargain price simply in order to lure customers into the store. When the customer arrives in the store, the salesman tells him that that item (the bait) cannot be purchased any more, or that it has been found to be defective. The salesman then ‘switches’ and aggressively markets a different item to the customer, who ends up buying something he didn’t really intend to purchase. In this case the seller had no intention of selling the original item and therefore his advertisement is insincere and damaging to the customer.

In many visual advertisements a different form of “bait and switch” is used. A provocatively dressed female or male cavorts on the screen or glossy magazine with the purpose of catching the attention of the customer, who is then bombarded with the real item’s various merits. The customer is a captive of the seller because his attention is distracted and titillated by the pleasurable picture which registers in his mind. This form of advertising appeals to the basest desires of humanity and should be prohibited since it represents an unfair psychological onslaught on the brain. In a sense a person is “brought” into the seller’s shop by the sexual image and then persuaded to buy the product while under the influence of that image. This ploy is not new; ancient man also knew the power of sexual imagery as an effective advertising tool. Indeed, exactly this ploy was utilized over 2000 years ago in order to entice the Jewish people to sin.

At the end of Parshat Balak, Balak, king of Moav, is in despair since he has not succeeded in his goal of cursing the Jewish people. Whenever he sent his star soothsayer Bilaam to curse the Jews, Bilaam ended up blessing them instead. After Balak angrily fired him, Bilaam left him with a final word of advice:

“‘The G-d of this nation (i.e. the Jews) hates licentious behavior, while the nation itself likes linen clothes. I’ll give you a piece of advice: Prepare stalls and place harlots in each one- an older one outside and a younger one inside, and let them sell linen.’ Balak followed this advice and when the Jews went for a walk in the marketplaces, the older women would say: ‘Aren’t you looking for linen.’ The older woman would price the linen at market value, while the younger one would offer it for less. After they had debated this two or three times, the younger woman would tell the Jew ‘choose whatever you want and feel at home here’. There were flagons of fine wine there (gentile wines had not yet been prohibited). She then said to him: ‘have a cup of wine’. After he was duly intoxicated, he wanted to cohabit with her. She thereupon took out her idol and said: “Serve this first’. He replied ‘but I’m a Jew’. She then said ‘What does that matter, all you need to do is expose yourself.’ He did not know that this was the way the idol was served.” (Sanhedrin 106)

This graphic description contains an elaborate double system of “bait and switch”. The Jew who is a moral individual would never dream of visiting a harlot. Therefore the linen trap was set to bring him into the store. Once there he is attracted to the young and lascivious girl who is offering a better price, but she herself is also a “bait”- to bring the Jew to serve idolatry. The catastrophic consequence of this ribaldry was a plague which killed 24,000 Jews- no mean accomplishment for Balak.

The lesson to be learnt from this episode is that despite the passage of time, human susceptibilities remain the same and advertisers have no moral right to take advantage of them. Men will always fall for the chimera of the feminine mystique, and it is crude and reprehensible to exploit this weakness for commercial purposes. Other forms of promoting a product can achieve the same goal without relying on this unethical practice. Thus we can rectify the sin which humbled our fathers two millennia ago, and regain our status as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:6)

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).