Rags and Riches
Recently, Lexus spent many millions of dollars on an ad campaign that wasn't exactly subtle. The ads trumpeted: "Whoever said money can't buy happiness isn't spending it right." The message, of course, was that you can buy happiness, providing you spend $50,000 or so on one of the company's luxury cars.
This kind of thing happens at all ends of the economic spectrum. Yesterday, I saw a McDonald's ad on a billboard. Several of their coffee beverages were pictured, along with the bold and prominent question "Who says you can't buy happiness?"
Similarly, years ago when I was working for my father and the ice cream company he cofounded and owned (Baskin-Robbins, 31 Flavors), the marketing department came up with what they considered a brilliant idea for a new advertising slogan. The new motto was to become the centerpiece of the company's marketing efforts. It was to be featured in radio, TV, and newspaper ads and displayed prominently in many of the retail stores. The new slogan was "We make people happy."
Both the marketing executives and my father were delighted with the proposed new motto. I, however, was not, and our differences sparked an intense conversation.
"What I like about the slogan," my dad argued, "is that we are communicating fun and happiness. That's what people want."
"Yes, people want to have fun and be happy," I agreed. "But it's not actually accurate. We don't make people happy. We sell ice cream."
"Don't get technical," he reprimanded. "You're making things too complicated."
I, of course, loved ice cream, to the point that I sometimes devoured a quart at a sitting. I knew intimately most of the hundreds of flavors the company had brought to market over the years. I thought many of the flavors were wonderful, and I'd had a hand in creating a number of them.
Up until this moment, I'd had no problem with the company's other advertising slogans. In fact, I was delighted that a huge photograph of me as a child, smiling while eating an ice cream cone, was prominently displayed on the wall behind the counter in hundreds of stores. And I happily sang the radio jingle that had been the centerpiece of ad campaigns in previous years: "Look for the sign with the big thirty-one-It's Baskin-Robbins, where ice cream's fun!" But there was something about this new slogan that disturbed me.
"Happiness is something we create by how we live our lives," I reflected. "It's something we bring about by living with respect for ourselves and for others. It's not something that can be bought and sold. We sell a product that is fun and provides temporary pleasure, but that's not the same thing as making people happy."
My dad was far from pleased. "What do you think you are, a philosopher?" he scolded. "Stop analyzing everything. We're talking about an advertising slogan, and you're making it into some kind of deep abstract discussion. Cut it out."
"What's the point, then?" I asked.
"The point is to sell ice cream."
"That's what I'm saying. That's what we do. We manufacture and sell ice cream. It takes a lot more than an ice cream cone to make someone happy."
"They can also buy quarts, half gallons, and ice cream cakes."
My heart sank. I knew he was right, in terms of what would effectively sell the product. This was, after all, what advertisements are meant to do. Customers appreciated the experience, the image, the feeling of being happy that Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores represented. I knew the slogan would be effective. But still, something bothered me.
The forging of a conscience
Despite my concerns, the company adopted the motto, and "We make people happy" went on to become one of the most successful marketing slogans in the history of the American food business. Successful, that is, in terms of increased ice cream sales. Baskin-Robbins, founded the year I was born, was rapidly becoming the biggest and most profitable ice cream company in the world.
I, however, remained troubled. I knew how high ice cream is in saturated fat and sugar, and I was coming to see the link with heart disease. An ice cream cone never killed anyone, but the more ice cream people eat the more likely they are to develop health problems, and the company naturally wanted to sell as much ice cream as possible. It was disturbing to consider that people might suffer more heart attacks as a result of the company's meteoric growth.
In 1967, my uncle Burt Baskin, the company's other founder, died of a heart attack. A big man, he was only fifty-four years old. I was overwhelmed with grief for the loss of my beloved uncle and increasingly troubled by the existential dilemma I was facing.
I asked my father if he thought there might be any connection between the amount of ice cream my uncle ate and his fatal heart attack. "Absolutely not," he snapped. "His ticker just got tired and stopped working."
It was not hard to understand why my father wouldn't want to consider that there might be a connection. By that time he had manufactured and sold more ice cream than any other human being who had ever lived on this planet. He didn't want to think that ice cream harmed anyone, much less that it had anything to do with the death of his beloved brother-in-law and business partner. But I could not keep from wondering.
My dad had groomed me since my earliest childhood to one day succeed him at Baskin-Robbins. The company was expanding rapidly, with annual sales in the billions of dollars. But despite the considerable lure of great wealth, I felt called to a different way of life, one whose purpose wasn't focused on making the most money but on making the biggest difference. Every new generation has an instinct to step out on its own, but what was stirred in me felt somehow much deeper than a stereotypical father-son generational split.
As a teenager, I had read the writings of Henry David Thoreau, who challenged the relentless pursuit of money and social status. "I love to see anything," he wrote, "that implies a simpler mode of life and a greater nearness to the earth." Seeing people too often make themselves what he called "slaves to the acquisition of money and things," he suggested that "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without."
Thoreau's books inspired me to think about topics that were never discussed in the household in which I grew up-issues such as the importance of contact with the natural world, self-reliance, personal conscience, and social responsibility. Meanwhile, I was living in a home with an ice cream cone-shaped swimming pool and a soda fountain that offered guests all thirty-one flavors. My father was proud of his Rolls-Royce and the many expensive classic cars he collected. His yacht was named The 32nd Flavor.
If money and ice cream were all that was needed to make a person happy, I would have been jubilant. But I wasn't, and my distress kept growing stronger. I had the distinct impression that even though humanity now had the potential to live upon this earth with more ease and comfort than had ever been possible in human history, we were collectively moving farther and farther away from that possibility.
I thought that Gandhi was right when he said that there is enough for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed, and so it pained me to see how often money was becoming the goal of our lives, rather than a tool in service to our ultimate goals.
It would be twenty more years before the hit film Wall Street would appear, in which the lead character Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, would fervently declare that "Greed is good." But it was already clear to me that the pursuit of a prosperity driven by voracious consumption was taking root, and that it beckoned the eventual destruction of much that is good in our spirits and our world. If these trends were to continue, I feared, the global economy would become gargantuan in its excesses and grotesque in its inequalities.
I was born at the pinnacle of the old good life with its promise of unlimited consumption, and was poised to champion it into a new generation. I could not have forecast the collapse of major financial institutions that predatory lending and unrestrained greed would precipitate in the economic crisis that began in 2008. But I knew that ideas and ways of treating people and the earth were spreading over the world that were socially unjust, spiritually unfulfilling, environmentally unsustainable, and morally bankrupt. It was dawning on me that I would have to change my life to the core.
I did not find it easy, however, to explain my thoughts and feelings to my father, a conservative businessman who never went a day without reading The Wall Street Journal. He had come of age during the Great Depression of the 1930s, while I was becoming an adult in the 1960s. Our lives were shaped by very different times.
"It's a different world now than when you grew up," I told him. "The environment is deteriorating rapidly under the impact of human activities. Every two seconds a child somewhere dies of hunger, while elsewhere there are abundant resources going to waste. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening. We live now under a nuclear shadow, and at any moment the unspeakable could happen. Under these circumstances, can you see that inventing a thirty-second flavor would not be an adequate response for my life?"
A choice for integrity
It was my father's dream that I would eventually take over the business, and he offered me an opportunity that would surely have meant a life of immense wealth. But something deep inside me kept pulling me in a different direction. Money, it seemed to me, was valuable only as a means to other ends, and I rebelled against the mind-set that made people measure their self-worth by their net worth. I wanted to use my life to help bring about a world of greater respect, understanding, and integrity.
When I was twenty-one, deeply troubled by the damage I saw being done to o...