Topic: Business & Commercial

Pizza Hut Ethics
(12/21/2005)

It's on TV so often that my son recites the lines as the actor says them. Pizza Hut's latest commercial blitz features an ecstatic recipient of three delivered pizzas screaming to his significant other that once again, the pizza delivery man "made a mistake" and gave him more pizza than he paid for.

If the commercial were especially clever or persuasive it might have slightly mitigated the fact that the behavior it seems to anoint as the norm is thoroughly unethical---theft, in fact. Various polls indicate that a large percentage of Americans, perhaps even a majority, think that it's acceptable to keep a bank error in your favor, like the famous "Chance" card in Monopoly suggests, and pocket the benefits of any other billing errors that come out in their favor. Well, it isn't acceptable; it's contemptible. If TV commercials are pervasive enough to imprint their words on a twelve-year-old's brain, they are capable of establishing cultural norms, and the Pizza Hut commercial says that taking advantage of a delivery man's error is normal behavior.

The commercial didn't have to convey an unethical message. The point of the ad is that the Pizza Hut delivery man didn't really make a mistake, it's just that three Pizza Hut pizzas cost as little as one pizza from the competition. The commercial just as easily could have featured an honest customer trying to pay more money for the pizzas, with the delivery man finally explaining that there was no mistake. This would have shown both parties to the transaction being ethical, rather than presenting unethical conduct as a typical response to being under-billed.

There are few circumstances that so clearly call for the application of the Golden Rule as when someone's mistake has presented you with money that you neither earned nor deserve. Is it to be handled by treating the careless individual who gave away the money (or undercharged for a product or service) as the recipient of the benefit would want to be treated if their roles were reversed, or is it a case of applying a backwards Golden Rule: cheat him because he would probably cheat you if he could? The first response is one that extends respect and consideration to fellow citizens, and builds a society strengthened by mutual trust. The second response leads to a cynical dog-eat-dog culture, devoid of trust and driven by selfishness, cynicism, and greed.

The issue isn't what our culture is today, but what we want it to be tomorrow. Pizza Hut's sordid little commercial may not play a big part in pushing us one way or the other, but it contributes to the millions of little incidents and messages absorbed by our youth that are relentlessly warping their sense of right and wrong.

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