Today's business world is built on advertising and PR...From mainstream media, and down to google, with its tantalizing 25 character ads that have an entire industry built around them. Ads tell half truths...What do Jewish values say about being in advertising, PR, marketing, etc? If it's not totally false, but just "spin"...how bad is it?
Your question speaks to the purpose of this very website, namely, the ways in which Jewish values are important to us in our day and how they can bring answers to some of the challenges we face. As you said, and rightly so, with the rise of technology, there are more and more means by which advertisers can get our attention. Every place we look, every time we turn on our computer, something always seems to be in our face wanting our attention (and our money!).
Though there were no computers, Google, or mass media in the time of our rabbis thousands of years ago, they did have similar concerns to yours. For example, we read in the Talmud (Baba Batra 58b), "If donkey drivers ask you for fodder, don't tell them "Go to so and so, who sells fodder", when you know that he has never sold it." Now, on the surface, this doesn't seem to have much relevance for us. But, if you think about how advertisers try to entice us to purchase products that are not what they actually are or the clever internet ads that ply us with offers that we too good to be true, you'll understand that the rabbis how to deal with unscrupulous business people just as we do.
There are two rabbinic concepts that speak to this and other related issues called 'ona'at devarim', literally oppression through words and 'ona'at mamon', oppression through monetary means. In Leviticus 25: 14 we read, "When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another." Though this verse is referring specifically to property sales during the Jubilee year, the rabbis expanded it to refer to all types of business dealings. Overcharging consumers in one example, not being truthful in the way a product is being marketed in another. The manner in which we relate to others in business, either through money or the words we use is essential. There is no room for taking advantage (oppressing) another for our own purposes. The rabbis remind us that we cannot do so in any way in our interactions with others.
Regarding the quality of 'spin' that goes into advertising, there seems to be only one overriding question, not necessarily is it true but is it taking advantage of the unsuspecting? Is it using peoples' weaknesses to trick them or make them believe something that it not accurate? If so, Judaism clearly states that it should not be done or condoned. Yes, we should always be somewhat skeptical of any advertising we see but wouldn't it be better if those who were selling us something took these Jewish values to heart?
The Torah teaches “M’dvar sheker tirchak”, “Distance yourself from a deceitful thing”.Based on this ethic, I would be hard pressed not to require the highest forms of truth in advertising.It would appear that if one knows one is lying about a product, or implying something that is not true, one would be violating this ethic.I guess I’m saying that one must believe in the product one is selling as well as the facts about that product one is disseminating to be able to ethically push that product.How this ethical view plays out in the real world must be approached on an issue by issue basis.According to Nachmanidies (the Ramban) It is possible to act within Jewish Law and still be “Menuval Birshut Hatorah” “Detestible while remaining within the permissible boundaries of the Torah” ie. Halachically OK, but ethically corrupt.
In the Tractate Sanhedrin we read the following: “This is the penalty for the liar. Even when he tells the truth, no one believes him.” In Baba Metzia, we read “No man should talk one way with his lips and think another way in his heart.” Advertising can and should be honest and not rely on spin.
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