Sunday, April 20, 2014
Is a potentially offensive joke worth the possible repercussions?
Driving home one Sunday afternoon along Route 1 South heading into Boston, I noticed the message on a large billboard to the left off the highway. The billboard featured the photo of a Lexus sedan on the right and on the left, the message: "We give everyone great service. Unless you're a Yankees fan."
That's it. That's the whole billboard sign. It's a joke, of course, and after doing some digging, the newspaper version of the same ad features a note from the dealer that starts with the words, "Just kidding" and ends with the observation that everyone deserves great service, "even Yankees fans."
OK. So it's a joke. But when the joke is not made clear on the giant billboard sign, does the car dealer risk offending prospective buyers by telling them they're not welcome?
Granted, Boston is a diehard Red Sox town. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) announces on its website that "our newborns are all Red Sox babies," tough going if you're an out-of-town Yankees fan who goes into labor in Boston and ends up at BIDMC.
It's all in good fun, but does the loyalty for one team that's so strong it carries over into a playful hatred of another team warrant carrying the joke far enough so that a particular group is made to feel unwanted on the premises? BIDMC welcomes all newborns as members of the Red Sox nation. It does not joke about providing exemplary healthcare to all newborns except those born to Yankees fans.
I'm a Yankee fan living in Boston. I've been a Yankees fan since I was 4. My father was a Yankees fan. But I've lived in Boston for more than 35 years and am surrounded by family and friends, all of whom are diehard Red Sox fans. (Except for my youngest grandson, Luke, who loves that Derek Jeter hit a home run on the first pitch in the first game that Luke ever saw the Yankees play the Red Sox at Fenway Park.)
My dentist of 30 years knows I'm a Yankees fan and he provides me with the same care and service he does his other patients. He doesn't joke about treating me differently because of my fan loyalty. And hepitched for the Red Sox in the 1960s.
Was the car dealer wrong to joke on the billboard about giving great service to everyone but Yankees fans? Humor is a funny thing. As long as the dealer is willing to recognize that by suggesting a specific group of prospective buyers is not as welcome at his establishments, he's likely to lose business, that's fine. Perhaps his business is just fine without welcoming Yankees fans. And it's not likely charges will be brought against him for discriminating against a protected group of Yankees fans.
The right thing for any business owner to do is decide whether it's worth it, in an effort to be funny, to run the risk of offending prospective customers. And the right thing for Yankees fans to do is decide whether to buy a car from this guy. I know at least one who won't.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin