Advertising and the Tenth Commandment

Advertising deals in dissatisfaction, argues one environmental activist. We buy to cure deficiencies that ads mercilessly invent, encouraging us to covet what others have.

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The author's dismal view of advertising would be contested by some, arguing that advertising can and sometimes does inform us about beneficial products of which we might otherwise be unaware. Reprinted with permission from the column “The People & the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, August 13, 2001. This article is a commentary to the weekly Torah portion Va'et'hanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11.

If there were a multi-billion-dollar industry in our society whose sole purpose was to get you to murder, commit adultery, steal, or perjure yourself, we might wonder about its legitimacy. These transgressions are forbidden by commandments No. 6, 7, 8 and 9 [of the Ten Commandments], proclaimed for the second time in the Torah in Deuteronomy 5:17. Yet regarding the next one on the list, No. 10, there is just such an industry - the advertising industry. It is designed to get you to want things you don’t have, to covet.

advertising and judaismAnd yet the captains of this industry are not put behind bars; they are handsomely rewarded. The “products” of this industry - ads - are not distributed on the black market, nor do they reach consumers in brown paper wrappers. They are thrust before us in broad daylight, in every cranny of our society and culture.

“Thou Shalt Not Covet.” It sounds so Puritan, so old-fashioned. Yet the psychic state of continually wanting more, of perennial dissatisfaction with what we have, and therefore with who we are (for the two have become pathologically connected), is the driving force of our consumer society. Once, greed was bad - avarice, cupidity, rapacity, lust: these were vices to be rooted out. They threatened social relations, the common good, and the spiritual well-being of the individual. But the advance of the free market and the quasi-religious belief in “the invisible hand” change all that: Act solely for your own material betterment, says the new catechism, and the mechanism of supply and demand will ensure benefit for all. In the guise of “enlightened” self-interest, greed has been rehabilitated. Consumptive culture cultivates covetousness. And spiritual well-being? Oh, don’t be so new-agey.

Forbidden to Desire? -- or to Grab?

To be sure, the tenth commandment does not speak explicitly of society as a whole. It is an individual precept condemning coveting one’s neighbor’s property. But what does that mean? There is a 2,000-year-old debate among commentators, Christian and Jewish, about whether the injunction concerns feelings or behavior. On one hand, it seems unreasonable to legislate desire. On the other, the improper actions that stem from covetousness - theft and adultery - have already been proscribed. Maimonides explains in Sefer Hamitzvot and in the Mishneh Torah, in the Laws of Theft and Loss, that the commandment bans something between thought and action: active scheming to get the desired object, putting undue pressure on the owner to sell - even if you end up paying full value. The actual act need not be illegal, but the intention and method of its implementation are flagged as immoral and destructive.

Enter advertising. Because producers covet consumers’ money, they need to get consumers to covet their goods. Social historians note a change in American advertising after World War I, from conveying product information to manufacturing desire. The public, business people feared, was too frugal. To rev up the economy, products were associated with images, glamour, personal identity. Marketing moved from fulfilling needs to creating them. Thirty years later, the post-World War II boom gave us planned obsolescence, whose most recent incarnation is the need for continual upgrading of our electronic gadgets.

Advertising deals in dissatisfaction. We buy in order to cure the blemishes that ads mercilessly invent. The list of our maladies is endless, from body odors to vehicular impotence. The number of products available equals the number of these flaws multiplied by the number of brands available. This bounty is what we call “affluence,” though the proliferation of products and desire is a disease properly dubbed “affluenza.”

Jewish Law Imposes Limits on Advertising

In contrast, Jewish law strictly limits acceptable means of advertising one’s wares. A storekeeper can’t even polish his apples to make them more attractive than his competitors’ fruit if there is no difference in quality.

Contemporary economist Kenneth Boulding has made the distinction between a “cowboy economy” and a “spaceship economy.” The cowboy had endless horizons, unlimited resources, and no problem disposing of waste. Our world, however, increasingly resembles a spaceship: limited resources that must be husbanded; living conditions that are profoundly affected by our actions. In a cowboy world, the original reading of the tenth commandment made sense -- protecting property and controlling the coveting of things not one’s own. In a spaceship world, “Don’t covet” must be read anew: The simple act of continually wanting more is destructive of self, others and the world. Coveting goods - that is, seeking to “keep up with the Joneses” -- doesn’t mean robbing other people, just buying as much as them. And if the entire world were to adopt the lifestyle of the average American, we would need four more planets just to get by.

Or perhaps this reading isn’t so new. The great Greco-Jewish philosopher of antiquity, Philo, generalized “Do not covet” to include greed for money, hunger for honor, sexual lust, hedonism and gluttony. He thereby emphasized the emotional side of insatiable desires and the importance of spiritual work. “Who is rich?” says Tractate Avot of the Mishnah, and answers that it is not one who has material wealth, but rather “one who is satisfied with his portion.” And “who is strong? One who controls his desires.” This inner work is a necessary first step toward the ultimate goal of transforming society, from obsession with quantity to striving for quality, from acquisition to inner disposition, and from merely having to truly being.

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Jeremy Benstein

Jeremy Benstein is the fellowship director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.