Tobacco And Sincerity (2006 Nov)

by Barry A. Liebling

The rationale for a corporate image campaign is to inform the public – potential customers, investors, suppliers, employees, and interested observers – what a company’s official attitude is on issues that relate to its business. When done well with honesty and integrity, image campaigns are a company asset that encourage affection and loyalty. Alternatively, positions that are ill-conceived can wreck a company’s credibility and drive thoughtful people away.

Consider Philip Morris USA the “leading cigarette manufacturer in the U.S.” Take a look at the website – especially “Mission & Values,” “Smoking & Health Issues,” and “Our Initiatives & Programs.” The message is that the company’s main business is making and selling “the best quality tobacco products to adults who use them.” The company intends to “provide smoking pleasure/reduce harm” for consumers. This is an acceptable start. The upside of cigarettes is pleasure and it is accompanied by a downside – harm.

Bear in mind that every substance that you put in your body has downsides and potential disadvantages. There is no pharmaceutical product, no food, no beverage that cannot lead to injury. Pure distilled water can be consumed to excess and might harm the drinker. A product is valuable – worth making, selling, buying, or using – to the extent that on balance the assets outweigh the liabilities.

The Philip Morris site lists formidable downsides of cigarettes. There are explicit statements that “smoking causes serious diseases,” “that smoking is addictive,” and that “the best thing to do is quit.” The website proudly proclaims that the company is funding a Youth Smoking Prevention program and an adult “QuitAssist” program.

So, besides smoking pleasure, what are the good things that counter the downsides of cigarettes? Or how does smoking pleasure outweigh the liabilities of smoking? Nothing is to be found on the website. The information and tone of the website presents a compelling argument that cigarettes are on balance not worthwhile.

How should the website be interpreted? What is it revealing about the people who run the company? Either the executives are pandering and do not really mean what they are saying or their message is sincere. Each case is a trap with dire consequences.

Suppose they do not mean what they are saying. They may have no particular opinion about the objective value of cigarettes. Cynics within the company might believe that their job is to make money – without breaking the law – regardless of the value or lack of value of cigarettes. They may conclude that in today’s political climate where anti-tobacco advocates are influential the best thing to do is to mollify the critics. By funding smoking cessation programs and announcing that smoking is dangerous the company might be seen as being “socially responsible” and will not be attacked so much – giving it the opportunity to generate revenues by selling cigarettes to adult smokers.

Perhaps the executives believe that there are benefits of smoking that more than make up for the liabilities. Still they dare not argue their true sentiments because they do not want to offend politically powerful anti-smoking partisans.

Notice that if the cigarette company executives are not sincere, if they are indulging their antagonists as a tactic to stay in business, their credibility is ruined. Astute observers will know that communications that come from the company – on any topic – are not to be taken seriously. The company policy is to say whatever it takes to appease its adversaries.

But what if Philip Morris executives sincerely believe the core messages on the website. They are convinced that the dangers of smoking are pernicious and far outweigh the pleasures some smokers obtain. They yearn for a world where young people will not begin smoking and adult smokers will decide to quit. If they genuinely come to this conclusion, they ought to get out of the cigarette business all together. Surely, there are many businesses – different from cigarettes – where products are made, sold, and consumed that have real value. A sincere person of integrity should choose to work in a company where he or she approves of the products.

Nobody can escape from the necessity of having integrity. Whatever business you are in you have to use your best judgment to evaluate your product or service. Then say what you know to be true, and act accordingly. If you are convinced your work is worthwhile have the courage to stand up for it. If you do not regard your business as genuinely valuable, you know it is time to quit.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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