December 2006 Ethics Dunces

Dr. Laura

There are good reasons why public figures whose jobs depend on integrity and trust avoid endorsing commercial products and services for compensation. Such conduct raises immediate ethical questions about the honesty and independent judgment. When Rosie O'Donnell and Penny Marshall did a series of TV ads a few years ago showing them gleefully shopping at K-Mart, there was immediate and justifiable cynicism in the media over whether these two show biz millionaires would ever set foot in the discount stores, much less shop in them. Most paid endorsements are just that: a company pays a well-known individual to read a script extolling the virtues of something that the celebrity may never have used. Paying an actor or athlete to do this is not deceptive unless the actors pretend to be "real people," though when the actor is playing himself or herself, like Rosie and Penny, it really is a form of misrepresentation. But paying a news anchor, a Senator, a priest or a judge to do the same has the whiff of bribery about it, and creates the dreaded "appearance of impropriety."

Thus it is very rare to see even retired public servants in commercials. When Bob Dole did commercials for an erectile dysfunction drug, the public's presumption was that he really used the stuff; after all, why would anyone advertise this very personal problem if it wasn't true? (My suspicious father's stock answer: "The same reason he'd do it if it were true: M-O-N-E-Y!") It is even rarer to see TV news journalists do commercials, though it was not always thus: Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" fame once did cigarette commercials, for instance. Today the only TV journalists seen hawking products are ESPN sports announcers, whose probity and integrity are not really at the core their function, which is to read scores over videotape and make jokes.

On radio, talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham often do commercials, but they are also more performers than journalists. My professional advice to them would still be not to lend their personal endorsements to ads for Sleepmaster beds, Vegas get-away vacation deals and gold brokers, but so far they haven't called.

Another radio voice, Dr. Laura Schlesinger, is in a special category of one, however. A nationally syndicated life-coach whose tough-love advice and ultra-conservative values have made one of talk radios true superstars, "Dr. Laura's" mantra is "Go do the right thing." This means that she puts herself forward as a moral guide, ethics judge and role model who uses the trust of her audience to convince them of what doing the right thing is. She is a vocal on-air advocate of honesty, courage, meeting commitments, and loyalty. This makes her especially valuable as a commercial spokesperson, for her loyal fans believe that Dr. Laura would never steer them wrong. It also means that she needs to be very careful that any commercials she does are consistent with the ethical values she attempts to hammer into her callers' brains.

Schlesinger is always urging her troubled supplicants to give their spouses love, tenderness, romance and frequent rolls in the hay, so doing commercials for a company called "Pajamagram" on her syndicated show must have seemed both natural and appropriate. Pajamagram delivers nicely packaged gifts of pajamas that can be purchased with a mouse click or phone call. This gesture is consistent with Dr. Laura's goals and philosophy, and her reading of promotional copy for the service would seem harmless.

Lurking in her script, however, is this passage:

"Ordering a Pajamagram takes only minutes, but your spouse will think you planned it for days."

There is an implied lie here, and although Dr. Laura regularly inveighs against lying to one's spouse, here she is saying that pulling one over on the love of your life is a grand idea. What's that I hear from Scoreboard readers? "But it's just a little lie; you're blowing it out of proportion!"

That is because the habit of deceiving one's spouse so frequently does get blown out of proportion. Oh, the popular culture thinks it's hilarious, as in the current TV commercial in which an errant husband convinces his wife that he's at the office rather than in a bar as bar patrons imitate a TV news broadcast while he lies to her over the phone. But whether the lie is trivial or clever, lying to a spouse is a breach of trust and a betrayal that often leads to a "slippery slope." Next time, those talented bar patrons may be covering up an illicit rendezvous rather than a beer. The next Pajamagram may be ordered from a lover's cell phone.

Being a prominent advocate for ethical values, and Schlesinger is certainly that, comes with an obligation not to lead your disciples astray. Reading a commercial that celebrates the benefits of deception is not just an endorsement of a product, but the endorsement of an unethical practice that Dr. Laura knows can become a relationship-wrecking addiction. When she looked over the Pajamagram copy before reading it on the air, she should have done the right thing and crossed out that sentence with a red pencil.




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