Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Clarity? Priceless

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Operation Inspiration

In 1997, MasterCard launched an advertising campaign that lasted for decades. It was a series of ads which included the cost of certain items, and then something that was “Priceless.” For example, it may have gone something like this: Sunscreen – $3.49. New Frisbee – $12.99. Sneakers – $49. Spending the day playing in the sunshine with your kids? Priceless. Then came the tagline: There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.

The idea, it has been suggested, was to paint them as a friendly company with a sense of humor, and perhaps take the edge off the materialistic image of banks and credit card companies. The unspoken intent behind it, of course, was to get people to splurge on items that they could buy with their credit card and not worry about the money, in order to enjoy the things that money can’t buy. Now, reading the above example might seem pretty benign and make a lot of sense, but let’s realize that the same rationale could be used for other purchasing scenarios, such as:

Brand new sports car – $85,000. Gold-framed Ray-Ban sunglasses – $2,000. Showing your father-in-law who said you’d never be successful that he was wrong? Priceless. Not as much of a warm cozy feeling in this one, and not one that should be resonating with a Jew, for sure. Either way, the point of the campaign was to get you to purchase things on the credit card and worry about paying for them later, which is quite a dangerous game. And, as I came to find out, other things are “priceless,” too.

It seems that in the old days, we had coffee and bagel shops where you’d pick up a cup of coffee for a buck or two, a bagel sandwich for maybe 3 dollars, and you’d be on your way. Those places are few and far between now, as stores opt instead for luxury food items and luxury prices to go with them. When your formerly $5 breakfast now includes a $9 sandwich and $6 coffee, and that’s just the starting point, you can tell things are going to keep getting expensive.

Well, I went into one of these places one day (by the way, I bought bagels which I brought home and toasted for myself, saving 75% or more) and noticed a display of delectable-looking pastries and cakes. I’d seen them before and they looked amazing. However, what shocked me more than how good they looked were the prices. I like the occasional piece of cheesecake, but $8 for a slice is a bit much in my book. Some of the fancier items were $12, and I wondered who actually purchased such pricey treats.

On the day in question, however, I again noticed the case with the expensive pastries, but something was different. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but then it hit me like a rolling pin wielded by an angry woman whose husband came home drunk from a night playing cards with his friends.

The prices were gone!

That’s right. The cards identifying the cheesecake or “chocolate molten fudge volcano with sweet cream and imported elderberries” simply had the names on them, but no prices were to be seen anywhere! I easily imagined why. As long as the price was there, someone would see the item and think, “That looks really yummy, but $12 is a lot of money for something even as pretty as that. I really don’t need the calories or the cash crunch.”

Without the price, though, a customer might see them and say, “Oooh! That cheesecake looks amazing. I’d like a slice please.” The server would take it out of the case, plate it or package it, and then say, “OK, your total comes to $13.07, will that be cash or card?” Frantically, the customer’s mind begins to race, “What? $13 for a piece of cake that will be gone in a few minutes? It’s not like it’s a special occasion or anything. That’s ridiculous. But… I already asked for it. I’d better take it. I don’t want to be embarrassed and look cheap or like I can’t afford it.”  So, they take the cake and pay for it. Hopefully, after realizing what they did, they can still enjoy it.

The store understands human nature very well, and they know that when they make food that is special, they can charge a premium, even if something more basic would have sufficed. They also know that extremely high prices will eventually frighten off many buyers, but if they just show their wares without the price, they will snag more customers than if they gave them all the information.

In life, we have many opportunities for pleasure. Most often, if the “price” was listed at the time of the choice, people would desist. If they thought about what indulging would do to their health, their relationships or marriages, or their neshamos, they would say, “Thanks but no thanks.”

But the Yetzer Hara is a clever businessman. He hides the prices until we’re drawn in by the promise of delights we’ve never imagined before. Then, when we partake, it’s too late and we’ll have to pay the price. Let’s face it, some things in life are priceless; but some things have a price that’s much too high.

PLEASE NOTE: This column is intended to make you think. Any similarity to businesses active or inactive is purely coincidental.

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