The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project with the JCT Center for Business Ethics.
Q. Companies sometimes advertise their products by paying someone to enter an internet chat room under a false name and praise the product as if they were an ordinary customer. Or they send out e-mails to newsgroups recommending the product, again using assumed identities. The representatives sincerely believe in the information they're sending out and view it as a service to the consumer. Is this an acceptable practice?
A. It may seem as if no one is lying here. Yet the bottom line is that the company is telling people that satisfied customers all over cyberspace are buzzing about their product. If the salespeople were to say this outright, they would certainly be lying; "telling" people the same thing through an elaborate charade only adds insult to injury by wasting people's time -- and bandwidth -- with bogus endorsements.
The Torah forbids us to "put a stumbling block before the blind." (Leviticus 19:14.) This includes misleading anyone who is blind to what is really happening. The sages give an example almost identical to the situation you describe: Don't advise someone that it is in his interest to sell his field in order to buy a donkey, when your real intention is to buy the field from him. (Rashi's commentary.) Here also the person is giving advice, perhaps even sincere advice, but his counsel is misleading since he hides his own interest in the outcome.
In addition to being unethical, this practice is also unprofessional. The code of ethics of the American Marketing Association, to take just one example, requires "avoidance of sales promotions that use deception or manipulation."
Commerce is a positive area of human endeavor. Not only does it provide us with goods and services, it also stimulates human relations since we need to reach out to others to meet our needs. The market place is also a meeting place, and in cyberspace as well people enjoy the fellowship of chat rooms and newsgroups. Jewish tradition explains that our material desires have an important role to play in encouraging us to form human connections. But we should never put the cart before the horse, and make profits the ends and human relationships only a means.
It's wonderful to exploit selling in order to generate friendships, but it's shameful to exploit friendships in order to generate sales.
SOURCES: Leviticus 19:14 and Rashi's commentary; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228; Medrash Rabba on Genesis 1:331.
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