Advertising, Judaism Share Similarities, Look at Bill Bernbach

Bill Bernbach is widely recognized as an advertising god (lower case ‘g’).

He was a driving force behind advertising’s creative revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. He and his agency Doyle, Dane, Bernbach, created mythical campaigns, such as Volkswagen (Lemon, Think Small), Avis (We try harder), Alka Seltzer (I can’t believe I ate the whole thing) and American Tourister luggage (gorilla throwing around a suitcase).

Bernbach began the then unknown practice of pairing copywriters with art directors.While he was Jewish, Bernbach’s job title was Adman, not Rabbi. However, a rabbi is a teacher, and perhaps Bernbach’s biography should be amended to include that title.

Here’s why.

The core of all Judaic teaching is the Torah, the five books of the Hebrew bible. The translation of Torah is “to guide” or “to teach.”

The role of advertising, according to the ADV 2100 textbook “M: Advertising” is “…to inform, persuade and remind groups of customers or markets about the need-satisfying value of the company’s goods and services.”



For example, when a consumer wants to eat healthier, prevent tooth decay, or drive safely to and from work, she requires facts to make an educated purchase decision.

That’s where advertising comes in. Whatever the platform, advertising provides information to consumers about products and services on the marketplace.

It follows that the job of an adman is to use advertising to educate and inspire critical thinking: one of the rabbi’s charges. Jews are taught to question to learn more deeply. Hopefully, well-crafted advertising will provoke curiosity and conversation, leading to insight.

Conversation is a particularly important part of the advertising equation today. In “Marketing 3.0: From Products to Customers to the Human Spirit,” Philip Kotler and his coauthors declare we are in the age of collaboration.

New technologies have enabled people to connect with others, express themselves and collaborate in a way that amplifies (or diminishes) a point of view, per Kotler’s book. The conversation and questioning commanded of a Jew can now occur on social media.  

Presenting facts is an important first step, but brands are heightening the emotional connection while stoking conversation through storytelling. Like midrash, ancient rabbinic stories on the Hebrew scriptures used to interpret difficult bible passages, advertising weaves emotionally laden stories to help consumers interpret and internalize complex ideas and bond with the product/service.

Nowhere is the stoking of emotions more noticeable than in political advertising.

Each ad vehicle presents a point of view about a politician that aims to change a voter’s mind or reinforce a perception. This year’s election is particularly heated, and voters won’t pull the Clinton or Trump lever given the candidate’s position, as much as the passions they inspire.

The stories of Gold Star parents have become a flash point, too.

These modern-day midrashim are presented as testimonials articulated by parents, spouses and loved ones. Testimonials are a tried-and-true advertising technique. Both political sides use them to convince and convert.

For sure, they have sowed dissent — and this, too, is consistent with Jewish practice. Just as Jews are allowed and even encouraged to argue with God, Democrats and Republicans should argue. Argument is ethical because it is a route to deeper understanding.

Where does advertising stray from Jewish teaching and become unethical? Two examples:

  1. The 10th commandment tells us not to covet. People need cars to get to work. While a Ford compact is a perfectly suitable mode of transport, many consumers covet a BMW. Is advertising guilty of breaking the 10th commandment by promoting the luxurious engineering? Does driving a BMW imbue status on the driver that was earned simply by being able to afford an expensive automobile?
  2. Jews are taught to love their neighbors as they love themselves. This implies mutual respect. Advertisers that condescend to prospects are guilty of disrespect. Another advertising god, David Ogilvy, once warned his colleagues and clients: “The consumer isn’t a moron. She’s your wife.”

Of course, both Jews and Christians share the 10 Commandments and the Old Testament; they are the foundation for Judeo-Christian morals. In Judaism, however, the Talmud is the font from which all ethical teachings flow.

The Talmud contains the book of Jewish law, called Mishnah, with rabbinic commentary and discussion, called Gemara. It’s not surprising the Talmud stems from discussion between rabbinic sages. Here’s one way Talmudic teachings apply to advertising ethics.

In his paper, “Geneivat Da'at: The Prohibition Against Deception in Today's World,” Hershey Friedman states that in the Talmudic view: “…there are seven types of thieves and, of these, the most egregious is the one who "steals the minds" of people (Tosefta Bava Kama 7:3).”

This is a description of deceit — making false or misleading statements, puffery, dishonest offers and providing false or misleading credentials. Consumers consistently accuse advertisers of being deceitful. In fact, Millennials are so suspicious of marketers they actively avoid advertising.

At its core, this is a trust issue.

When consumers believe the claims an advertiser makes, they are more likely to purchase the product and share positive opinions. Deceit undermines trust. And brands that are not trusted flounder.

Most reputable brands strive to be honest and straightforward —not steal the minds of consumers. They include messaging in their advertising to directly address this issue. They engage in conversation on social media to be transparent and authentic. They expose themselves in new, risky ways to build trust.

Here’s a poignant example from my career.

I worked at an agency that built the first social-media program for Disney. The Disney lawyers objected to this “risky” strategy for fear that allowing consumers to comment in an open forum on Facebook exposed its most treasured brand asset — Mickey Mouse.

After building in safeguards, Disney was able to open a dialogue with moms in social media and expand on the goodwill. The program was a success and established another avenue for Disney to connect with its audience and heighten trust.

Geneivat Da’at is a serious Talmudic law. Advertisers must also see it as a guiding principle toward ethical business behavior.

In my world, where the glass is always half full, I like to believe honesty and ethics, being straightforward and transparent, are ingrained in all marketing an advertiser puts forth. But hey, that’s this author’s opinion

Like any good Jew, I invite discussion, questioning and argument. How else will we gain a deeper understanding?

2 comments about "Advertising, Judaism Share Similarities, Look at Bill Bernbach".
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  1. John Grono from GAP Research, October 18, 2016 at 3:42 a.m.

    Interesting post Neil.

    But did you really mean those campaigns were 'mythical'.  I would have thought thay were now (and at the time) as 'legendary'.

  2. Kalim Ullah from Draft FCB Ulka Advertising Ltd, October 18, 2016 at 8:55 a.m.

    This is RIDICULOUS...NO mention of PALESTINE here?

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