My Five-Step Ethical Analysis: A Billboard I Saw Yesterday, and Today

Yesterday, while driving on I-95 to UNH, I noticed a billboard on the side of the road. It showed the message of a golf equipment store. In big letters, it said “Need Balls?” Then it listed Titleist, Calloway, and some other familiar brands of golf balls this store sells. It is a double-entendre, a mildly vulgar one. Is a mildly vulgar billboard ethical? Let’s analyze it according to my five-step method.

Question 1. Is it illegal? What do I mean by “it”? There isn’t just one “it” here. There are two: 1) Is it illegal for the golf equipment store to run a mildly vulgar ad? 2) Is it illegal for the billboard company to show a mildly vulgar ad? My guess, and this is just a guess, is that the ad is not vulgar enough to be “obscene.” If it were ”obscene,” then perhaps, although I really don’t know, it would violate some law. My guess (don’t rely on this; I am just guessing) is that neither the golf equipment store nor the billboard company is doing anything illegal by showing this ad. So we go to Question 2.

Question 2. Is it a tort, breach of contract, or other activity that might cause someone to sue you (in this case, the golf equipment store or the billboard company) in court and win? In this situation, my answer to Question 2 is the same as my answer to Question 1. If the answer to Question 1 is no, then I’m pretty sure the answer to Question 2 is no.

Question 3. Will it offend people, and if so, will it offend enough people so that the amount of money you (the golf equipment store or the billboard company) lose by doing it is greater than the amount of money you gain by doing it? Yes, some people will be offended by the ad. Will enough people be offended by the ad so that the golf equipment store or billboard company will lose money rather than gain money by showing this ad? I doubt it. Thus, whether it is ethical or unethical to show such an ad on a highway billboard is debatable. I think that the worst that can be said of this billboard ad is that it is in poor taste, but I don’t equate “poor taste” with “unethical.” “Poor taste” is not as bad as “unethical.” I think much of what I see in TV and other forms of entertainment and advertising is in poor taste, but that does not mean I think it is “unethical.” Furthermore, not everyone agrees with my taste. In fact, I am in the minority on a number of “taste” issues. This is why my analysis always begins with Question 1 (Is it illegal?), followed, if the answer to Question 1 is “no” or “uncertain,” by Question 2 (Is it a tort, breach of contract, or other activity that might cause someone to sue you in court and win?). Questions 1 and 2 are about law, not simply “taste.”  When there is a law, it means that society has reached a consensus on something. When society has not reached a consensus, go to Question 3.

In fairness to the golf equipment store and the billboard company, I decided to drive by the billboard again today. I wanted to see if it the billboard is the same today as it was yesterday. I exited the highway, drove down a side street, parked my car, and watched the billboard for about 10 minutes. I noticed today that the billboard message changes every 10 seconds or so. It shows one company’s message for about 10 seconds, then another company’s message for about 10 seconds, and so on. When I first saw the golf equipment store’s message on the billboard today, it was not the same message as yesterday. Today it said “Drive Straight.” “Drive Straight” is a more tasteful double-entendre (it can refer to driving your car on I-95 or driving your golf ball from a tee on the golf course) than “Need Balls?” I wondered if perhaps someone complained about the “Need Balls?” message and caused either the golf equipment store or the billboard company to delete the “Need Balls?” message. After watching for about five minutes, the billboard did show the “Need Balls?” message. It showed either golf balls or the familiar brand names of the golf balls (it definitely showed the familiar brand names of the golf balls; I forget whether it showed pictures of the balls themselves). Then, below the brand names or golf balls, it said “We got them” or “We’ve got them” (or something like that; I forget whether it said We or We’ve; it doesn’t matter). So, in fairness to the golf equipment store and the billboard company, the “Need Balls?” message is shown for only about 10 seconds every five minutes. Even if someone is offended by the message, the message is less offensive than it would be if it were the only message on the billboard.

Since my answer to Question 3 is no, there is no need to ask Questions 4 and 5.

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