Advertising Judaism

January 4, 2004
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by David Nelson

THINK OF THE BEST television commercials, or the most creative, eye-catching print ads you’ve ever seen. Now imagine that kind of advertising for synagogues, for Jewish study, or for Shabbat. When I recently pitched this concept to a colleague, he said, “We have to be careful not to commercialize Judaism.”

Why? Why do so many Jews have a visceral, negative reaction to the “commercialization” (by which we mean the selling) of Judaism?

Some people feel that “selling” and “advertising” connote cheapness and lack of inherent worth. Should we sell Judaism like potato chips? Wouldn’t that cheapen and commodify our sense of Judaism? People don’t give up their lives, or stake their children’s future, on commodities.

But there are also ads for universities and hospitals, ads to discourage drug use, or smoking, or to encourage people to use public libraries. These ads represent institutions and causes that affect our survival and our ultimate welfare. And they advertise because we live in a very crowded marketplace of ideas, images, and products. The competition for our attention is enormous, and each candidate — no matter how noble or important — has to compete. In an environment crammed with images all screaming for our attention, it is naïve to think that Jewishness is so important that it need not compete. If we don’t, we will fail.

While professional creative advertising is hugely expensive, and companies spend millions to advertise, if we are to function in the real world (as opposed to some nostalgically imagined, pre-modern world in which Jews were Jewish because there was no alternative), we must pay the price. We have done this before. When Ethiopian Jews were initially allowed to leave for Israel, the Jewish world judged it worthwhile to spend $10,000 for each new immigrant. No one would ever have argued that $10,000 is too much to spend for a life.

The difference between ransoming Jews at $10,000 each and paying millions for effective advertising lies in our sense that advertising isn’t about saving lives. Although there is no equivalence between saving human lives and the metaphorical “life-saving” that happens through educating Jews and inspiring them to love being Jewish, our survival requires both the preservation and protection of our lives and the preservation and protection of our traditions, practices, beliefs, and memories — goals of synagogues, schools, summer camps, and youth programs in Israel. To preserve these vital organs of our communal life we must make them competitive in the overcrowded marketplace. If we don’t, they will fail.

How would we know if the ads were successful? This is a difficult question. Years ago, commercials were straightforward. They told us to buy Brand X detergent because it was better and cheaper than Brands Y and Z. After a few months of running the ads, if sales of Brand X increased over sales of Brands Y and Z, then the ad agency could claim success. But consumers have become much more sophisticated, and advertising has changed to accommodate that sophistication. Now the best commercials don’t try to convince us openly to buy a product. They take a subtler tack — a captivating television commercial where we have no idea what is being advertised. The goal of such ads is to create what advertisers call “buzz” — excitement, curiosity, and interest. They attempt to link the product, the brand, or the logo with positive feelings in the consumer’s mind. Instead of telling us that Brand X cleans better and costs less, they try to create a link between Brand X and happiness, or power, or sexiness, or fun. If it works, eventually we feel good every time we see the Brand X logo. That means that the immediate pay-off in sales will be harder to spot. What the ads are trying to affect, initially, is not our buying patterns but our attitudes. This approach takes patience.

The Jewish community has historically been unwilling to spend large sums on advertising, and it has been impatient. If we are committed to the long-term success of Jewish life, we must be willing to spend the money, hire the best creative talent available, and be patient.

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Dean, Rabbi David Nelson is Director of the Jewish Life Connection at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, N.J. For 15 years, he was a Senior Teaching Fellow at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He has served on the faculties of Adelphi University, New York University, and Hebrew Union College.

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