The Bad Man's View: Home Robbery as Opportunity
One of the occupational hazards of teaching law is that I often take what Oliver Wendell Holmes called a “bad man’s view” of human motivation (my beloved spouse just told me this is the understatement of the century). Holmes, in his paradigm shifting “The Paths of the Law,” said :
If you want to know the law and nothing else, you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.
I find that this cynical tool for legal prediction – which parallels a presumption of narrow economic self-interest – often guides the way I interpret actions and events.
For example, Staples has a television ad in fairly heavy rotation where a young couple returns to their home only to discover that they’ve been robbed. The house is basically stripped bare of its TV, stereo and most of its furniture.
But in the next room, the couple discovers that the thieves didn’t take the computer. The woman thinks for a moment and then says “Maybe, it’s time for a new one.”
Cut to a Staples store, where the couple has just bought a snazzy laptop and the man happily concludes. “Now this is something they would steal.”
Others have commented on the perversity of the ad (if they had had a nicer computer they might have lost their wedding video, baby pictures, and taxes documents), but after several viewings it occurred to me that the ad might be subversively read as suggesting that the couple may have committed a criminal offense.
Can you see why?
Here’s a hint. Thinking about the telephone calls the couple is about to make when the woman concludes that it’s an opportune time to buy a new computer.
If they have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, they are about to call their insurance agent (as well as the police).
It might have occurred the couple that it was a good time to buy a new computer because they have a chance to commit insurance fraud and falsely claim to the insurance company that their decrepit old computer was stolen along with their other belongings. From the bad man’s perspective, now may be a good time to buy a new computer, because the insurance company will pay for it. (Of course, having Staples transfer your files from the old computer would be riskier if the couple was simultaneously telling its insurance company and the police that the old computer had just been stolen).
I’m pretty sure that this fraud reading of the commercial is not one that the authors intended – so it’s not one of the hidden messages that I’ve found in Crocodile Dundee or the Lion King. But the bad man’s view suggests a perverse way that insured victims of crime can immorally turn lemons into lemonade. An added benefit of putting Lojack in computers and flat-screen TVs is that it might help keep down the prevalence of insurance fraud.