Integrity Matters
February 23, 2005

Bad taste shouldn't stop free market

Question: (E-172)

Dear Jim:

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 sell."

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:

  1. Does it need to be more sensitive?
  2. 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.

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