Making Hay When the Sun Shines, and Doesn't Host Jacki Lyden and New York Times Magazine Ethicist Randy Cohen discuss the ethics of peddling memorabilia. They thrash out the dilemma of a listener whose friend works for a firm has been selling souvenirs with the image of the late Pope John Paul II. The friend wonders whether it's proper to sell such souvenirs for a profit.
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Making Hay When the Sun Shines, and Doesn't

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Making Hay When the Sun Shines, and Doesn't

Making Hay When the Sun Shines, and Doesn't

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Pope John Paul II may have died last month, but his image lives on in dolls, collector plates, even phone cards. You may have seen some of this kitsch; it's hard to escape it. And it's bothering a friend of listener Andrew Blyman(ph). We have him on the phone to sort it out with New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen.

Hello to both of you guys.

Mr. ANDREW BLYMAN (Listener): Hello.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (The Ethicist, New York Times Magazine): Hi, Jacki.

LYDEN: Andrew, tell us about your friend, his business and, you know, his very topical question.

Mr. BLYMAN: My friend works at a collectibles firm. It's a pretty big company, and they produce a pretty wide variety of products, you know, everything from, you know, die-cast cars to commemorative stamps to pet-themed mugs. I guess for some time he's kind of wondered at the ethics involved of selling these products as family heirlooms when he really considers them to be, you know, tsatskes.

But recently, he's had a slightly more severe concern to do with John Paul II's passing. When the pope passed away, there was a very large marketing push by the company to get products out there with his likeness on it, really, as fast as possible. In fact, some of these products were developed even before he passed away, so he believes. And he's not sure how he should feel about this. On the one hand, he thinks it might be an example of, you know, this company he works for taking advantage of a tragic situation, or maybe, on the other hand, it's really just capitalism kind of meeting a grieving public's needs.

LYDEN: So your friend works at something like the Franklin Mint, right?

Mr. BLYMAN: Yes, very similar.

LYDEN: Hmm. Well, you know, opportunity or eternity, Randy? Which do you think it is?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I do think that the two hands Andrew has described are both the hands of capitalism. If there's a buck to be made exploiting a tragedy, that's what our country's built on, and we've raised a fine standard of living by doing it. And we're not alone, either. I read in a Reuters piece, Jacki, that right there on the Via della Conciliazione, the boulevard that leads to the Vatican, you could buy golf balls stamped with Vatican Golf Club while they were meeting to pick the new pope. You could buy a John Paul II calendar. I don't think it was the swimsuit calendar; I'm not sure. I'm a very secular person. I don't really know.

And I say more power to everyone. I say `Who's hurt?' The pope is dead, and it will certainly not hurt him. So in that sense, I don't think it is an ethical problem. It could be a legal problem. If the pope is a registered trademark like Elvis, then you might face a legal problem, but I leave that to lawyers. There are questions of taste here, no doubt about it, but I don't think there's an ethical problem.

LYDEN: Well, I will just say that the Vatican has long had a gift shop, and so perhaps it's time that American business catches up. But there really isn't any action that Andrew can take here, is there, Randy? He's not the one marketing pope on a rope.

Mr. COHEN: Well, I suppose we--oh, man, I'm so glad you said that because then you'll get the angry letters rather than having people send them to me. Yes, there is something he can do if there's something that needed doing. I'm not convinced there is, but we can all try to influence our friends. So in that sense, there's an action he could take.

But there's another point I wanted to make, which is: Why do we draw the line at the pope? Why do we give special status to religious figures?--that Washington and Lincoln are routinely exploited for white sales every year. Beethoven is like a funny bust people can market, and you don't seem concerned that you might exploit his image. So you're right to consider the feelings of other people, but in this case, market your fool head off; that's what I would tell your friend.

Mr. BLYMAN: I appreciate the advice.

LYDEN: Are you going to pass this along to your friend, Andrew?

Mr. BLYMAN: I certainly will.

LYDEN: And this really is a friend? You're not posing as someone who has a friend?

Mr. BLYMAN: It definitely is a friend.

LYDEN: Well, Andrew Blyman in Pleasantville, thanks very much for inviting us.

Mr. BLYMAN: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: If you've got a question for Randy, or you want to buy his display cabinet full of collectible porcelain thimbles, drop us a line at watc@npr.org. Put the word `ethics' in the subject line, and please include a phone number where we can reach you.

And, Randy, thanks for being with us, and keep that collection polished.

Mr. COHEN: I sure will, Jacki. Take care.

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