My parents disagreed on a lot of things. But they were very big believers in "ayin hara" - that's Hebrew for the "evil eye" - and always told me to avoid it.
If you're not familiar with this concept, ayin hara occurs when you flaunt your success and others get jealous. G-d sees their pain and punishes you for causing it.
Avoidance of ayin hara is completely counter to American culture. Here we say, "If you've got it, flaunt it." Entire industries - particularly entertainment but also publishing, fashion, fine jewelry, and more - survive purely by showcasing material success. Provoking the jealousy of others.
In fact you could say that much of the business of branding is about creating the illusion that you can be as successful as others, if only you buy the fancy things that they do.
Obviously one can rebut the concept of evil eye with the simple counter-argument that other people's negativity and anger is really their problem. This is the kind of response one might get from a psychologist, but the rabbis wondered about this too:
"'Where is the justice in a system that causes people to suffer for the jealousies of others?'....One person who has what another person lacks is "careless" and lets the other person see what he has. This causes pain to the other person, and his cry goes up to the Heavenly court."
Nevertheless, the concept of evil eye persists, and not only in Judaism. Buddhists call it karma - the universal law of cause and effect - and it dictates that whatever harm you cause, in this life or a previous one, will come back to bite you.
If you believe in ayin hara, as I do, how then can you morally participate in the field of branding, entertainment, publishing or any industry that seeks to provoke jealousy in order to make sales?
Actually there are many responses to this. Here's how I think about it:
1. Branding provides an escape from life's stresses: One thing I appreciate about Buddhism is the understanding that life is inherently about suffering. Most of our time is not fun! Branding and escapist industries, while they can provoke jealousy, also provide an important outlet for people whose ordinary existence can range from the tolerable to the depressing. The key, though, is to state explicitly what is for fun and fantasy and not to deceive people or psychologically manipulate them. It is on the advertiser to provide this, though of course most do not.
2. Branding helps people find trusted merchants: When it comes to branding specifically, the fact is that there are some products and services that are more reliable than others. To me, it is a good thing if the producer of these things actually tells people that - proves it - and makes the product easy to access. Again, transparency is the key and if you make the claim that you are better, it is up to you to prove it.
3. Branding can leverage the positive benefits of jealousy: In Judaism, we believe that jealousy is appropriate on a spiritual level - like wanting to be as good or as learned as somebody else. This principle can be applied in a broader way. When a magazine or television show celebrates Bill Gates for trying to cure malaria, or Peter Drucker or Jack Welch as a leadership guru, I am completely jealous of the scope and scale of their achievements. It makes me see that such a thing is possible, and want to deliver something as good as that. My jealousy isn't hateful, but rather beneficial to society in the end because it motivates me to do better. In short, as one writer summarized the thinking of Rabbi Yosef Levin, "use jealousy to push toward your highest self."
At the same time, brands and marketers can clearly do a better job when it comes to being responsible for the impact of their work (our work) on society. Too often we do manipulate and mislead people into thinking that materialism is the answer, that we are failures if we don't have what the celebrities do, and that we should spend every last penny till we look as successful as they do.
And we have crappy answers when we're asked about it.
In "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," Morgan Spurlock asks neuromarketer Martin Lindstrom - a man who spends his time putting people through MRIs to gauge their excitement response to Coca-Cola - about the ethics of manipulating people's brains to get them to buy sugar water. His response is that of course marketing can be used for good or for evil - but then again, when you go into a store, you're toast.
The bottom line, really, is that people will do what they do in order to maximize the benefit for themselves. While marketer Lindstrom may be willing to admit that it's unhealthy to check your Blackberry first thing upon awaking, that isn't going to stop him from pushing the Blackberry sound on the customer. Ultimately it is the buying individual - the customer - that has to take responsibility for their own mental health, their propensity toward jealousy, their understanding of the products they are buying, and the emotions that brands and branded entertainment provoke overall.
While G-d may punish those who provoke consumers' emotional pain, that doesn't mean consumers have a free pass to wallow in it.
Have a great Labor Day everyone, and good luck!