Untruth in Advertising
Thanks all the same but no, I’d prefer my next party not be “the talk of the town.”
The advertisement promising town-wide tittering over my gala affair was for a Jerusalem hotel, and appeared in a publication catering to an Orthodox Jewish readership. It went on to assure me that the food served at the establishment will hew to the highest standard of kashrut, including strict observance of the laws of the Sabbatical-year.
Fine and good. Wonderful, in fact. But I still really prefer the town not end up talking about my party. Because kashrut isn’t the only concern common to observant Jews; so is (or should be) the Jewish ideal of tzeniut – literally, “hiddenness.” That concept is perhaps most commonly associated with manner of dress – clothing designed and worn to clothe, not to… well, advertise. But tzeniut means not only to dress modestly but to live modestly. Jews are enjoined by the tzeniut ideal, for instances, to speak softly, to not be boastful, to shun ostentatiousness. And, presumably, to avoid becoming the talk of the town.
Thank G-d, my wife and I have been blessed with occasions to host a few parties, like the weddings of several of our children. Even though financial constraints would have limited our options in any event, we consciously opted for modest affairs, tasteful but not showy. The weddings were every bit as beautiful to the young couples, our family, our friends and us as any more elaborate celebrations could possibly have been. And if any townsfolk talked about our weddings, what was likely recounted was their dignified simplicity.
Much of the business of modern advertising, however, aims precisely to de-dignify simplicity, to try to make people feel they are missing things they are not. And so it’s not only tzeniut that takes a hit; so does a fundamental attitude prescribed by the Jewish religious tradition: being “content with one’s lot.”
There certainly are straightforward and informative ads, offering useful products and services with integrity. Some are even clever, and thus entertaining to boot. But much of the advertising industry today seeks to make its money by preying on human insecurities and pushing the real opiate of the masses: possessions.
That is bad enough in the world at large. Worse still, though, is perusing a Jewish publication filled with articles about Jewish ideas, personalities, history and happenings and turning the page to find an advertisement fostering things antithetical to Judaism – like materialism, one-upmanship or ostentatiousness. It’s like a spring day walk in the park suddenly interrupted by a foul odor.
Maybe I’m overly sensitive, allergic to ad copy hyperbole. But another ad I recently saw in yet another otherwise thoroughly Jewish publication made me uncomfortable. It, too, was pushing a hotel, this one as a place to spend the Jewish holidays.
The tagline, upfront and bolded, likely seemed innocent enough to the casual reader. “Enjoy a Memorable Sukkos Holiday!” it suggested. Details of the locale’s many amenities, creature comforts and religious needs alike, followed.
Now I have nothing against Jewish families with the means to do so (and who have paid their tuition bills) packing out to a hotel for Sukkot or Passover. I feel bad that they will forfeit the singular experience of a Jewish holiday at home. But I realize that for some very busy people the preparatory work entailed would be overwhelming, and that for others family situations or logistical circumstances make a hotel experience preferable to one at home.
But the ad’s tagline struck me as something other than a simple good-hearted wish. Was it subtly implying that Sukkot will be more memorable for being celebrated in a hotel? Or – could it be? – that the holiday will only be memorable if spent there?
If so, Jews who build their own sukkot, cook their own food, turn their homes into spiritual palaces (albeit without room service) would surely take issue with the contention.
I might well be overanalyzing the ad copy. But as someone who was privileged to be a teacher for nearly two decades – and who helped his wife raise a family – I never underestimate the power of even a subliminal, even an unintentional, message.
There are plenty of antithetical-to-Judaism attitudes out there in society, all around. What those of us who cherish Jewish values need to do is to counter them.
And certainly not advertise them.
© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]