February 23, 2005
Bad taste shouldn't stop free market
Should such tasteless gifts as teddy bears wearing straitjackets
and saying, "Crazy for you" be sold? I think
a Valentine's present like this is morally reprehensible.
You can refuse to buy what you consider tasteless the
same way you can change television channels and radio
stations when something offends your values and priorities.
Likewise, those who create offensive "gifts" -
whether products or services - have the right to market
and sell them. Even though you dislike a product, or
find it offensive, you don't have the right to deny others
their privileges in the free market.
Be assured, however, that your frustrations are shared.
Vermont Gov. James Douglas joined in complaints by mental
health groups condemning the company's lack of sensitivity
in marketing the Valentine's Day teddy bear. The $69.95
brown, furry bear comes with a straitjacket and commitment
papers that read: "Can't Eat. Can't Sleep. My Heart's
racing. Diagnosis: Crazy for You." When confronted
by the controversy, Chief Executive Elisabeth Robert
said her firm, the Vermont Teddy Bear Co., "was
not in a position to be told what it could or could not
A spokesman for the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley
College in Waltham, Mass., has said he may use the bear
as a case study in one of his seminars on business ethics.
He wants his students to ponder whether the company was
in error by addressing two questions:
- Does it need to be more sensitive?
- Does the fact that the bear sold out mean the company
was right to put it on the market?
This issue should remind us of what our freedoms mean.
Tasteless products have been around for a long time.
Integrity-centered leadership challenges thoughtful individuals
to be, if not patient and understanding, at least tolerant
to the preferences of those around them. Obviously, this
insensitive, controversial and profitable fad related
to a teddy bear for Valentine's Day will end. But some
of the controversy suggests society needs to remain mature
in its reaction.
My opinion is you may be correct that the marketing
and timing of this product has made money at the expense
of tastefulness and civility. But the company simply
created something that captured cash-paying customers.
The buying public has made the purchasing decision. So
with whom should one be upset? No one is making folks
buy the bear.
The bigger issue is the integrity of our freedom and
the autonomy of the capitalistic system. With apologies
to Voltaire, here are his words slightly modified: "I
may disapprove of what you design, build, market and
sell, but I will defend to the death your right to participate
in the free market that so many thousands and millions
of Americans have died to preserve."
Cultural integrity and economic freedom matter.