Topic: Business & Commercial

Outback Steak House: Teaching Extortion with a Chuckle
(9/27/2004)

Ethics pollution comes disguised in many forms, and one of the most pervasive is the "humorous" commercial that either encourages unethical conduct or treats it as standard practice. These ads, which often appear on television when children are watching, can send powerful messages that undermine ethical values. Parents who object so strenuously to violence on television in a dramatic context would be far better advised to pay more attention to these seemingly innocuous ads, which unlike most violent programs, aspire to show Americans living everyday lives…everyday lives that involve stealing, lying, cheating, and enjoying sweet vengeance.

The latest example is a new Outback Steak House commercial that begins by showing a harried husband surrepticiously sweeping up the ashes of his wife's departed pet cat, "Fluffy," and carefully placing them back in the urn he has presumably tipped over. Then he realizes that he is being observed by his two children, who smirk with the knowledge that they have Dad just where they want him. In the next shot, the father has taken his children to Outback, as the announcer extols the restaurant as ideal for "pay-offs."

The spot uncritically features deception, extortion, dishonesty and bribery as commonplace and harmless, not only encouraging an "everybody does it" attitude, but an even more objectionable "everybody does it, and isn't it cute?" attitude. "Lighten up!" you say. Well, to be blunt, the commercial isn't that funny. But if we really want to build an ethical culture, casual messages like this are counterproductive. Surely the talented commercial writers at Outback can think of ways to hawk their steak without telling kids that extortion is just dandy. If they can, they should. Bad behavior doesn't need commercials.

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