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The Torah Value of Marketing

I used to think that marketing was silly: a better mousetrap sells itself, surely? Of course, I used to think that about libertarianism as well.

As I grew, I came to realize that if nobody knows about your mousetrap, then you can hardly expect them to beat a path to your door. So you need to Advertise.

This was still a pretty juvenile understanding, as I am sure you appreciate. After all, a great many successful things (whether mousetraps or religions) are sold not because they deliver a dead mouse or a ticket to heaven, but because the market is somehow tickled by the pitch. So marketing is not just about making noise: it is about finding a way to speak to your audience.

In general, this has been pretty hard for me to wrap my head around, but the data just keeps coming back: people value the packaging of a gift, the ambiance of a restaurant, the solidity of not worrying about the future – even though none of these things makes a whit of physical concrete difference to our lives. And even with this, marketing is so much more than these things!

Most things that are promoted or sold are not needed for human survival or even physical luxury, but they clearly fill human needs nevertheless. How else can we explain the appeal of fireworks or music or religion? And just as we are attracted to some things, we are repelled from others: the fear of the unknown and too much freedom (libertarianism’s Achilles tendon).

Marketing is also a central subject in the Torah.

When Ruben wants to save Joseph from the pit, he tries to command his brothers, but they ignore him; he did a lousy job of marketing, and it meant that his mission failed.

Judah, by contrast, cajoles the brothers, identifies with them, and sells them on the idea of selling Joseph for a profit. We have no idea what Judah was actually thinking! But we know what he said, and that it worked; his brothers listened to him because he was persuasive. He was engaged in marketing.

As Joseph Cox has pointed out, Biblical Joseph in his lifetime developed what we now call marketing: he went from telling people what HE wanted them to hear (his narcissistic dreams), to telling people what they needed to hear (the dreams of the butler and baker), to telling people what would achieve the purposes of everyone involved (the dreams of Pharaoh).

The amazing thing about marketing is that while it has to have at least some tenuous connection to empirical information (a beauty product should not make one repellent, for example), it does not – ever – seek to share all known information about a subject. Marketing is selectively choosing what you want the listener to think about; it does not seek to share Truth but merely useful information.

So when Joseph interprets the dreams of the butler and baker, he tells them what they want to know – how the dreams matter to them. But this is not merely a parlor trick; if it was, the Torah would have just said, “They had dreams, Joseph interpreted them, and they came true.” But the Torah does not merely summarize: the dreams are detailed and specific.

Again, as Joseph Cox points out, the dreams had another meaning as well: they presaged the future of Egypt and Israel (in 300 years, Egypt would be plagued and then beheaded, while Israel would grow fat and be delivered into the hands of G-d). But biblical Joseph does not say this out loud; we cannot even know if he was aware of this interpretation! Just as with Judah’s “how do we profit from killing him? Let’s sell him!” The Torah is telling us that what really matters is what Joseph said: he told the butler and baker what they needed to hear.

When Joseph is later brought before Pharaoh and asked to interpret the king’s dreams, Joseph tells Pharaoh what Pharaoh needed to hear, and what would work best for Joseph’s future as well: “Seven years of plenty, and seven years of famine.” This is marketing at its best. But what Joseph does not do is suggest that the seven alien ears of corn and cows represent Israel coming into Egypt and devastating the host!

Both interpretations are probable – or even, with the benefit of hindsight, certain. But the true marketer picks his words with care, selecting the part of the story that works best all around.

We must follow the path of Yosef. By seeking the achievement of others and the honor of G-d, we can be blessed with the stories that will make the world see our success, and not our destruction, as the pathway towards achieving their own dreams.

G-d grants Abram success in the battle of the kings, but the world ignored G-d’s miraculous role – so G-d doubles down by promising (and then delivering) a much more showy event in the Exodus, designed to force the world to acknowledge that G-d exists, to birth a nation through a grand spectacle.

At the same time as the plagues and the Exodus, G-d is conducting a parallel marketing campaign to the Jewish people, one with different goals. In other words, G-d knows his audience, and tailors his words and actions accordingly! G-d is marketing!

What Joseph and Moses and G-d are doing is not a lie – but it is certainly being selective with the truth. And I think the Torah is making this quite explicitly into a virtue.

Think of a marriage. What we choose to say matters: no marriage could survive if every passing thought was voiced. The best marriages are between people who choose to see the positive in the other person. This is how beautiful relationships are built, not on the bedrock of Complete and Absolute Truth. Those who insist on telling it as they see it are terrible at human relationships.

Recognizing the positive is only part of the proverbial elephant, but it remains a part of the elephant nevertheless – it is usefully true in itself. And the Torah’s descriptions of Joseph and Moses and G-d all make it clear that marketing is front and center in the campaign to grow and thrive and to build holiness.

As Rabbi Sacks put it: “For Jews, holiness lies not in the way the world is but in the way it ought to be.” And how do we “sell” what ought to be? By imagining and promoting a vision for the future – by marketing something that does not now exist! (There is a risk of being accused of charlatanism, of course.)

It seems to me that the line between marketing and lying has nothing to do with the visions themselves: a marketer is a crook when they knowingly act in bad faith. But if they believe in their vision themselves, no matter how adventuresome it might be, then they are honestly doing what mankind is supposed to do. When we market, we are trying to sell the world on a vision of how the world ought to be. And if that vision is consistent with holiness, then marketing is G-d’s own work – and we are His agents.

Comments are welcome!