The category is Celebrity Ethics, Royal Ethics or Marketing Ethics, depending on your point of view. Unfortunately for ethical clarity, how you answer today’s Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz may depend on which category you choose.
Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, is embarrassing the Royal Family again, only this time it isn’t by throwing snowballs at photographers or by not being as demure and lovely as the late Princess Diana. This time, the self-exiled and divorced Fergie is trading on her title to make a living as an internet huckster. She has a website that peddles a juicer for weight loss and “The Perfecter Ultra”:
The Perfecter Ultra Heated Styling Brush combines innovative ionic technology with pure black tourmaline heating plates for ultimate convenience in achieving salon quality hairstyles at home. Create silky straight styles or beautiful bouncing curls, reduce frizzies or add volume to thinning hair, the Perfecter Ultra is the remarkable styling tool that does it all.
The Duchess has also been appearing on QVC, the cable shopping network where shopping addicts, lonely recluses and easy marks hang out. Among the Royals, with whom she is already on the outs, this is considered…unseemly. Concludes Tom Sykes at the Daily Beast:
“Her website majors in its attempts to cast her shill as public service, saying, “One of my missions in life now is to help people fight their weight challenges so they can live longer, healthier and happier lives. Take it from me: you can do it!” But the truth is, Fergie is selling her title, and getting paid a no-doubt healthy fee for her promotional activities.”
There’s little doubt that “selling her title” is a fair description.
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…
As Duchess of York, does Sarah Ferguson have an ethical obligation to behave like the symbol of the British Commonwealth that she and the rest of the Royal Family is, or can she ethically use her title as she chooses, including to sell junk on the internet?
This dilemma a cognitive dissonance cornucopia. Here’s that scale again:
The Royals occupy a place of high status and regard in Great Britain…let’s say a +10 on Dr. Festinger’s scale. Actually, their ranking is probably lower than that—dangerously low, some believe. After all, they are nothing but symbols, living flags, and if they aren’t a source of pride, they are useless relics. The ugly Princess Di episode pulled them down the scale sharply, though the new Royals and fecund Kate Middleton have restored a lot of the lost ground. A Royal who acts like Marie Osmond or William Devane threatens to pull the Royals down again, and if a Duchess has any responsibility, it is not to do anything that leaves the Royal Family in worse shape than it was when she joined it. She also is caught in a Catch 22: if Fergie’s huckster ways diminish the prestige of her title, she won’t be able to huck as effectively.
The other view would be succinctly stated as “So what?”
Here I must announce a bias born of both my late father and my wife, but for opposite reasons. My father frequently opined that the Royal Family was a waste of attention, money, celebrity and life, and old-fashioned Colonial Rebel that he was, proclaimed that he wouldn’t cross the street to shake hands with the Queen if she were on his block with her Corgis. My wife, an Anglophile, believes the Royals have already befouled their reputation past the point of no return, and that there is no reputation for Sarah Ferguson to harm.
I think my wife’s view is mine as well, recognizing that a British citizen’s view matters more than mine does. Sarah, if the stories are to be believed, is in dire circumstances, and her only route to income (to live in the manner in which she has become accustomed) is to trade on what she has, and her title is pretty much it. Yes, it would be considerate and responsible to give up the title if she is determined to become a female, red-headed Ron Popeil, or like that guy with all the question marks on his suit, but without the title, she’s an ex-celebrity, and headed to Walmart.
I am also influenced by the fact that lesser British royalty endorsing products and worse is a sleazy tradition of long-standing, and probably qualifies as tradition. Yes, “it’s traditional” is a variation on the Golden Rationalization, “Everybody Does It,” but an exception has to be carved out for the Royals, who themselves consist entirely of tradition.
W.S. Gilbert made grand fun of this habit in one of my favorite songs from the operettas in one of my least favorite G&S shows, “The Gondoliers.” In a duet that is (stupidly) often cut, the Duke and Duchess of Plazatoro (Spanish royalty, but Gilbert liked to use imaginary faux-foreign dignitaries to ridicule English ones, hence “The Mikado”) shamelessly explain how they survive as celebrity spokespersons and influence peddlers. The song is performed above. I couldn’t find a decent video that didn’t “update” the lyrics…as you will read and hear, they need no updating, and the fact that Gilbert’s lyrics still resonate over a century later is evidence of his genius…if you want to write lyrics with modern references for an encore, fine. But Gilbert’s satire deserves respect and faithful performing.
The version sung in the clip is performed by John Reed, the last of D’Oyly Carte’s great patter baritones. Here are Gilbert’s lyrics…
To help unhappy commoners, and add to their enjoyment,
Affords a man of noble rank congenial employment;
Of our attempts we offer you examples illustrative:
The work is light, and, I may add, it’s most remunerative.
Small titles and orders
For Mayors and Recorders
I get — and they’re highly delighted —
Duchess:They’re highly delighted!
M. P.’s baronetted,
Sham Colonels gazetted,
And second-rate Aldermen knighted —
Duchess: Yes, Aldermen knighted.
I find very paying:
It adds a large sum to my makings —
Duchess: Large sums to his makings.
At charity dinners
The best of speech-spinners,
I get ten per cent on the takings —
Duchess: One-tenth of the takings.
I present any lady
Whose conduct is shady
Or smacking of doubtful propriety —
Duke: Doubtful propriety.
When Virtue would quash her,
I take and whitewash her,
And launch her in first-rate society —
Duke: First-rate society!
I recommend acres
Of clumsy dressmakers —
Their fit and their finishing touches —
Duke: Their finishing touches.
A sum in addition
They pay for permission
To say that they make for the Duchess —
Duke: They make for the Duchess!
Those pressing prevailers,
The ready-made tailors,
Quote me as their great double-barrel —
Duchess: Their great double-barrel —
I allow them to do so,
Though Robinson Crusoe
Would jib at their wearing apparel —
Duchess: Such wearing apparel!
I sit, by selection,
Upon the direction
Of several Companies bubble —
Duchess: All Companies bubble!
As soon as they’re floated
I’m freely bank-noted–
I’m pretty well paid for my trouble —
Duchess: He’s paid for his trouble!
At middle-class party
I play at écarté —
And I’m by no means a beginner —
Duke: She’s not a beginner.
To one of my station
The remuneration —
Five guineas a night and my dinner —
Duke: And wine with her dinner.
I write letters blatant
On medicines patent —
And use any other you mustn’t —
Duke: Believe me, you mustn’t —
And vow my complexion
Derives its perfection
From somebody’s soap — which it doesn’t —
Duke: (It certainly doesn’t!)
We’re ready as witness
To any one’s fitness
To fill any place or preferment —
Duchess: A place or preferment.
We’re often in waiting
At junket or fêting,
And sometimes attend an interment —
Duke: We enjoy an interment.
In short, if you’d kindle
The spark of a swindle,
Lure simpletons into your clutches —
Yes; into your clutches.
Or hoodwink a debtor,
You cannot do better
Duchess: Than trot out a Duke or a Duchess,
Duke: A Duke…
Both: Or a Duchess!
Spark, Pointer and Facts: The Daily Beast