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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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.