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The Jewish Ethicist: Provocative Ads

The Jewish Ethicist: Provocative Ads

We may be used to them, but provocative ads are spiritually harmful.


Q. Are provocative advertisements ethical?

A. Advertising is probably as old as commerce, but today it has reached unprecedented scale; hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on advertising. Ads are a form of persuasion, but relatively few ads involve persuasion in the usual sense: presenting information that will bring a person to the realization that a particular product will benefit him and is worth the price. Most advertising operates at the level of imagination, rather than reasoning; the object is to create an instinctive attraction in the mind of the potential customer rather than to stimulate a rational process of conviction.

Since the imagination of men in particular is easily drawn to images of women, a very widespread advertising device is to arouse the imagination of men in this way. Sometimes this may involve images that are immodest per se; many could be characterized as indecent exposure. But the degree of exposure and the degree of provocation are not always the same; the focus of the question is the idea of provocation. (The same phenomenon exists to a much lesser extent with ads directed at women, and the same analysis applies.)

These ads are considered acceptable in modern society because imagination is considered something harmless. Fantasizing about forbidden activities is generally considered benign as long as it is not translated into action. Jewish tradition does not agree with this approach. Judaism attributes great power to the imagination, and imagining a transgression is comparable in many ways to committing one.

The Talmud teaches, "Contemplation of transgression is worse than transgression". (1) Specifically regarding looking at women, we learn: "The sight of a woman is better than the actual act." (2) The meaning is not that it is better ethically, but rather that it brings more psychic satisfaction and thus is in a way worse.

This seemingly counterintuitive result is understandable if we understand the essence of transgression. Transgressions of an interpersonal nature – theft, gossip, and so on – are forbidden because of their harmful effect on someone else. Those of a personal nature are forbidden because of their effects on ourselves. The very reason that the Torah forbids seemingly harmless acts, from forbidden relations to forbidden foods, is that they harm the soul. From this point of view, contemplating a transgression without performing could have even a worse impact that performing it without paying attention, for example eating forbidden food by mistake.

This is particularly true in the area of romantic attraction. This faculty is one of the most powerful faculties we have, and its power for spiritual good and harm are unique.

This idea can be illustrated by a close powerful analogy. Man has a powerful instinct for violence. Advertisements could leverage this emotion also for the purpose of selling, but there is widespread public recognition that this is an emotion that we don't want to arouse for the mere purpose of pushing consumer products – it is too powerful and too dangerous once released. Jewish tradition would adopt the parallel position regarding advertisements that leverage the emotion of romantic attraction.

SOURCES: (1) BT Yoma 29a (2) BT Yoma 74b

January 2, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 9

(9) Helen, December 13, 2011 2:32 AM

Jealous? MOI ??

Let me admit this secret feeling: I do NOT like my husband to gloat over barely clothed 20 year olds selling yoghurt!

(8) Anonymous, January 9, 2011 5:41 AM

If the ads were actually and truly benign, then there would be no great cost for them to be shown. But as all in the advertising know and understand, they are anything but benign. So, they charge through the roof because it works and benign is for the naive to believe in.

(7) Gilbert, January 7, 2011 7:08 AM

are there adds showing modest pure examples of women?

I believe there is an untapped market of people who would be drawn and captivated by pictures of wholesome shamefast females such as we see in the world's facination with the Amish . I believe the pendulum is so far swung to one side that it would be very wise for Madison Avenue to begin aiming hard in the other direction.

(6) SusanE, January 6, 2011 1:15 AM

All Ads Have an Agenda

I've studied the ads on the side of this page for jewelry, poor children, dating, Passover spas, hebrew learning, and a raffle. What do these ads use to make people like us spend our money on them? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~` Once you learn what the agenda of the ad is....then you can see how it sings to your senses. I don't see so many beautiful women in ads that are addressed to men as once was . It used to be that women sold everything to men from cars to cigarettes, to clothing. ~~~~~~~~~~~ Then the ads began showing men using the product to promote power over other men. Men in bigger automobiles than the other guy, men using exercize equipment to be stronger than other men, men closing a sale because they used the sponsers credit card after the meeting and the other guy didn't. Now they are selling mens' drugs so men can be better than other men. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~` Once the Ad Men promoted the power aspect of using any product.... they had the men interested, because with that perceived power they would get the woman anyway. Now, getting the woman isn't what men desire anymore. Madison Avenue men are brilliant and do their job very well. The ads are geared to the competition for power between the men. We all know that competition between men can lead to violence and war. The Ad Industry might be brilliant, but is it ethical?

(5) Becki, January 5, 2011 9:34 PM

thought provoking

I agree with the Rabbi's basic premise. i am SO tired of over the top, sexually provocative ads, especially on television. I agree that our souls are harmed, even deadened, muted, blunted by the cruel, the overly intense, the often sexually charged media that we look at, sometimes with an external yawn, without the glance inside to see what kind of juggling our psyches have to do to remain calm/sane.

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