Several years ago, I wrote a column about a highway billboard ad on Route 1 in Boston from an area car dealer which featured the tagline: "We give everyone great service. Unless you're a Yankees fan." The newspaper version of the ad followed that tagline with the words "Just kidding." And closes with the claim that it gives great service to everyone, "Yes, even Yankees fans."
I took issue with the ad, asking whether it took a healthy, longstanding rivalry between Boston and New York a bit too far by insulting potential customers based on their allegiance. Ultimately, the right thing, I argued was for anyone choosing to use such an ad was to decide whether the risk of alienating a healthy portion of its customer base was worth a joke, which likely would insult them. I mean, c'mon, if you tell us you don't want our business, why would we choose to do business with you?
But that was four years ago. Over the intervening years, the coarsening of our discourse has seemed to carry over into public advertising.
Dunkin' Donuts (which I guess now wants to be referred to as simply, "Dunkin'") now runs an ad on the streets of Boston that skips the specifics about sports teams and strikes firmly at New Yorkers of any stripe. It reads:
"Boston runs on Dunkin', hard work, the sweat from 37 championships #titletown! and the tears of New Yorkers."
OK. I get it. Boston fans and New York fans, particularly of the Red Sox and Yankees variety, like to go at one another. But the Dunkin' advertisement goes further. It jokes at the notion of taking joy in the tears of all New Yorkers, not just those of fans of a specific team.
Granted, it's intended as a joke. But the diehard lifelong Red Sox fan who drew my attention to the Dunkin' ad pointed out that the first thought that came to her mind when reading "the tears of New Yorkers" wasn't fans whose team lost a playoff series, but instead of those New Yorkers who responded with grief to the World Trade Center towers being attacked in September 2001. She couldn't remember one visual of any Yankees fans shedding a tear over a playoff loss to a team which had won 108 of its 162 games that season.
"I can't shake how awful seeing this ad made me feel," she said.
Dunkin' can't control what any of its ads conjure up in the minds of its customers. But does it and other advertisers have some responsibility for gratuitous negative swipes at non-Bostonians, regardless of their sports allegiance? Of course, they do.
Rather than simply lighten up and recognize a joke fallen flat, the right thing would be for advertisers and each of us to ask ourselves if we really want to contribute to an increasingly hostile environment where joy seems drawn at the expense of others and we can only win if someone else not only loses, but also if we can gleefully tell them how much we enjoy any pain they might be experiencing from their loss.
Dunkin' can do better. And so can the rest of us.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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