Advertising and marketing are everywhere we look: on billboards and blimps, on television and film, in our newspapers and magazines, on the food boxes we eat from, even on the clothes we wear. This is a far cry from our society 50 years ago – have you ever seen an old film or television show with product placement? These advertisements often increase and shift our desire and even tell us how we might feel and act. Consumer behavior shifts based not on personal needs, economic considerations, or ethical concerns, but on the power of gimmicks and social branding.
For better or worse, the United States has become the advertising capital of the world. Total U.S. advertising expenditures reached nearly $140 billion in 2012, more than a quarter of world advertising expenditures. These can range from the sponsorship of valuable cultural activities or messages urging a more healthful living style to deceptive ads from businesses that endlessly claim to be going out of business and holding one final sale.
One example of an industry full of deceptive advertising is big tobacco, which promotes one of the most addictive and life-threatening substances known to humanity. From top to bottom, it issues false propaganda. For example, in 1994, executives of seven tobacco companies testified before Congress and lied by saying that smoking tobacco was not addictive. Significantly, however, when pressed, the executives added that they hoped that their children would not become smokers.
Tobacco advertisers have proven extraordinarily resilient and successful in promoting their products. While tobacco ads have been banned from radio and television for more than a generation, they have discovered other ways to advertise. They have learned to increase their messaging through sponsoring sports and social events where people cannot avoid exposure to their logos. In addition, cigarette companies target specific populations using various tactics:
- Adolescents are targeted with ads that make smoking appealing. Numerous studies have concluded that tobacco advertising plays a key role in turning adolescents from occasional to addicted smokers, and are especially successful in hooking those who believe that they will not become addicted. Virtually every schoolteacher can confirm that students congregate in bathrooms to show their defiance of authority by smoking.
- Women are targeted with special brands that show very thin, fashionable women, encouraging the idea that smoking is a way to reduce weight.
- Latino Americans are targeted by cigarette brands with Spanish names such as Rio and Dorado.
- Studies have shown that African Americans are exposed to several hundred more cigarette ads than white people each year.
Fortunately, society can take steps against such harmful advertisements and promotions, and we can resist false messages. We no longer have to contend with smoke-filled restaurants and theaters, or feel obligated to have ashtrays in our home ready for anyone who chooses to come in and smoke at will. Also, the percentage of American smokers has declined from about 42 percent in 1965 to 19 percent in 2011. In addition, the federal government passed legislation in 2009 that empowered the FDA to regulate tobacco products and gave states the right to restrict cigarette advertising and promotion through means such as restricting the time and place where these activities could occur. Thus far, 20 states now restrict or prohibit places where free tobacco samples can be distributed. Still, today nearly 44 million Americans smoke tobacco, and in 2011 cigarette companies spent $8.37 billion on advertising and promotional activities in the United States. Advertising has the power to persuade, and to deceive.
As religious Jews, one pertinent question about advertising and its relationship to deception and promoting harmful decisions and habits is, what is halacha’s view of this?
In “The Impact of Jewish Values on Marketing and Business Practices,” Hershey Friedman, a professor at Brooklyn College, argues that while Jewish law may not explicitly forbid the influencing of consumers, it clearly violates the spirit of the law. (Specifically, it is geneivat data, deception, which is a Biblical prohibition).
The Talmud (Chullin 94a) gives an example of how business must not include any deception, towards Jews or non-Jews: “A person should not sell shoes made of the leather of an animal that died of natural causes (which is inherently weaker) under the pretense that it was made from the leather of an animal that was slaughtered.” The Shulchan Aruch bring this as halachah (CM 228:6).
Businesses need to compete, and advertising is the norm in commercial life. It is not an option to stop advertising. Further, Jewish law does embrace the notion that a reasonable person’s expectation can be assumed. One Talmudic passage gives an example:
Mar Zutra was once going from Sikara to Mahoza, while Rava and R. Safra were going to Sikara; and they met on the way. Believing that they had come to meet him, he said, “Why did you take the trouble to come so far to meet me?” R. Safra replied, “We did not know that you were coming; had we known, we would have done more than this.” Rava said to him, “Why did you say that to him? Now you have upset him.” He replied, “But we would be deceiving him otherwise.” “No, he would be deceiving himself” (Chullin 94b).
Rav Safra argues that one may not gain from the false perception of another. Rather one must proactively correct that misunderstanding to ensure an unfair moral debt is not created. Rava, on the other hand, believes there is responsibility from the other not to be self-deceived. Aaron Levine, author of “Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics,” explains that one must not only avoid wrong but proactively assure consumers of the truth. “The seller’s disclosure obligation consists not only of a duty not to mislead in an affirmative manner but also of a requirement to disabuse the customer of his reasonable misperception about the product.”
We see from these sources that Jewish law demands that we be extremely cautious in protecting and promoting the truth. We should take note of and observe these principles in our daily interactions with our fellows on the street, in the beit midrash, in workplace, and in the voting booth and when we talk about creating regulations for advertising.