Not exactly lying, but hoping to mislead
When I immigrated with my three young children, we had hours of innocent fun talking about the new words we were hearing, the unknown places we were visiting, and the novel tastes we were sampling.
Those early months were disabling but fun. It seemed that every day one of us would have a story to share about a misunderstanding, or the culture gap, or the proof that the British and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language.
But nowhere was the culture gap more vivid than in TV and radio advertising. Commercials for prescription drugs? Huh? Commercials for political candidates? Seriously? Cheese in a can? Are you kidding? (These first two things are banned in the UK, and the third should be. Sometimes it is good not having a constitution that guarantees free speech.) Then there was the absurd small print flashed on the TV screen for way less time than it is possible to read. And don’t get me started on the ‘oral’ small print at the end of radio commercials, in which announcers talk so fast no one can understand what they’re saying.
So, we would have discussions about the ethics of advertising. “If you say something so fast that no one can understand it, is it the same, morally, as not saying it at all?” “Probably”, we agreed.
Then there was the type of sinister advertising that played upon fear. Political ads usually fell into this category. Because fear sells. And it makes us vote. So, too, do false promises. And while there are laws that prevent advertisers from flat-out lying about their products, many skate awfully close to the edge. Take this example that I received in the mail during the pandemic. So struck was I by its bold, brassy Pinocchio-ness that I filed it away so that, one day, I could bring it out and amuse people in a church newsletter. Today is that day.
The advertisers would say that they are making no false claims. And while that is true, they are, without question, trying their best to make you believe something false.
- There’s the envelope. That official and bureaucratic-looking box in the top left corner gives the unsuspecting addressee the idea that this is from the Federal government and must be opened immediately and acted upon, under threat of dire punishments.
- After you have ripped open the envelope, you are greeted by Lady Liberty (“This MUST be from government”, you say to yourself), on what appears to be a check, standing guard next to the glorious words STIMULUS FUNDS (yes, in bold capitals). “This must be the money they were talking about on the news – they said it would be $2,400 – so this must be it!” You rejoice.
- You excitedly unfold the letter and discover that is actually an advertisement for a car dealership. A car dealership. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
- Legally, I’m sure they covered all their basis. They have printed “Not a government check” in the top corner (in way smaller print than ‘STIMULUS FUNDS’), and underneath the signature on this deceptive piece of paper is written “Not a check. Has no cash value.” So, they can’t be sued for false advertising.
And yet, is that really a good enough defense when the intention of the advertiser is obviously to mislead? I guess they would reply that everyone throws away their junk mail without reading it, and so they have to be creative to get people to open the envelope.
In my case they succeeded. I did open the envelope. But to what end? I was not in the market for a new car, but if I had been I’d certainly not have use this dealership. You see, this is not a victimless and light-hearted way of grabbing our attention. Some people (particularly elderly or under-resourced folks) who were waiting for their legitimate government stimulus payment were possibly taken in by this and for a moment became excited. Then they felt deflated. It is just not ethical.
In this ordinary example we see the grubbiness of a society whose commitment to the Truth is fading fast and where the Ninth Commandment can be sacrificed before the golden calf of profit. How far we have backslidden in our respect for Truth. Let us lead the way by speaking plainly, honestly, and humbly, with no hidden motives. Christians honor the Truth wherever we see it. We have nothing to fear in the Truth. Jesus tells us the Truth will set us free. Dishonesty can’t do that. We follow a man who said he was ‘The Truth’. Let us do so courageously.