Thank You For Smoking – Good talking, bad ethics


The film Thank You for Smoking illuminates the issues of disassociating business and ethics with more than a hint of dark comedy. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a man with a job that requires, as he puts it, “moral flexibility.” As the chief spokesperson and lobbyist for the Academy for Tobacco Studies, Nick receives and then spins blasts on behalf of the tobacco industry. He is also a member of the three person self-titled group “The Merchants of Death,” made up of a woman who works on the Moderation Council in the alcohol business, a man of the gun business’ own advisory safety group, and Nick himself. They frequently debate who has killed more people in their lifetime through work in their industry. Their commitment to these large corporations’ profit, which coincide with their own, exemplify shareholder theory to the extreme.

Nick discusses the “beauty of argument” in this scene. I found this relatable to our ethics discussions in class. It really illuminates the problem of there being no clear-cut objective answer when deciding if a company or industry is behaving in an ethical manner, one way where laws and ethics differ. Some, like the tobacco industry, seem to be more unethical than others, but if one spins it the right way or does enough to get out of the doghouse, the perception of the company and it’s public image might change all together. Of course, for any company, or industry in the case of this movie, bad publicity means bad business. Just ask Nike CEO Phil Knight.

As Nick says in the ice cream scene, he’s not after those bashing the tobacco industry, he’s “after them” (the public and potential customers). He doesn’t need to prove he himself is right, he just needs to prove the person he is arguing against isn’t, which thus creates a grey area. Nick’s method here in his ice cream example was to prove that the debate itself was inherently wrong and shouldn’t have been brought up in the first place; because it goes against everything a democratic and capitalist society stands for. This is the same technique he uses throughout the entire movie backing the tobacco corporations, and more specifically, arguing against the need for the skull and cross bones label on cigarette packs.

I enjoyed Nick’s ice cream analogy. Of course I don’t feel that it provided the right context, seeing as vanilla and chocolate ice cream won’t have any grave dangers associated with choosing one over the other. Obviously, smoking cigarettes results in more harm to society than it does value. Regardless, it is interesting to see how corporations and their advocates use logic and debate tactics to escape ethical questions that most would think should have consequences.

“Right there, looking into Joey’s eyes, it all came back in a rush. Why I do what I do. Defending the defenseless, protecting the disenfranchised corporations that have been abandoned by their very own consumers: the logger, the sweatshop foreman, the oil driller, the land mine developer, the baby seal poacher…”

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2 thoughts on “Thank You For Smoking – Good talking, bad ethics

  1. Good analysis of Nick’s argument. I also like how the kid, presumably less “worldly” or “educated” than the adult sticks to his guns.

    At a very deep level, the ice cream scene raises a question in my mind: are all forms of freedom the same? Is the freedom to choose one product over another to make oneself happy the same as the freedom to knowingly harm oneself or others (smoking)? Combined with the “rant” from Newsroom on this post, the two scenes raise some good discussion about Freedom and also its usage in the context of consumption.

    I think the Freedoms of our founding documents are much more political in nature.

    Which raises a second point I want to make briefly. Democracy and capitalism are not always marching in the same direction. One or the other will often conflict or challenge the other. Your right to free speech usually ends at the workplace door. Meanwhile, so far, your influence on politics through voting is limited to one person, one vote (however, not your influence in spending).

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