Alsop’s Law Four: Live Your Values and Ethics

10 Apr

“Walk the talk.”

“Live your words.”

“Get real.”

The simplest and most straightforward thing to do in concept is not always easy in real life. Sometimes it seems best to save face in the short term, but if doing so covers up a truth destined to float to the surface over time, a short-sighted decision could ruin a reputation.

In Ronald Alsop’s The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation, Law 4 focuses on embodying corporate values and ethics. The three keywords of this chapter are: Reaffirm, Reinforce, Revise. Of most interest to me is Alsop’s discussion of a complex case study in ethics: Philip Morris.

tobacco_plant

Ever smelled a tobacco bloom? They are incredibly fragrant, especially at night. Try it sometime, but don't smoke it!

The Marlboro Man is an icon in the advertising world. My father-in-law recently gave me a copy of an old Esquire magazine from September 1970. Flipping through the pages, there are some vintage ads that give a good laugh: Dacron, ankle boots, elevators (the shoes) and belted sweaters for men were IN. Among the fashion floundering and scotch are a variety of cigarette ads, WITHOUT the health warnings we are so accustomed to seeing today.

By 1970, studies had clearly established a causal link between smoking and lung cancer. As early as 1930, German scientists in Cologne had discovered the link between smoking and health problems. More research began bubbling up, and by the 1950s the tobacco industry had initiated an active PR campaign to control their message, and filtered cigarettes also helped to lend a greater air of safety to the smoker. Causality had been confirmed by the U.S. Surgeon General’s release of a study in 1964 clarifying that smokers were 9 to 10 times more likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers. A Reader’s Digest story on the topic had further spread the results.

The irony of the Marlboro Man is that his brand promise is a living, breathing (raspily) lie. He evoked a sense of confidence, outdoorsy good looks and “cool appeal” that attracted a generation of smokers, yet in reality he led people into an addiction that has been called the toughest to kick, and in the process put them at risk for long-term health issues and untimely death. My favorite grandma was a case study. She started smoking at 15, in the 1930s, and died of complications from emphysema and congestive heart failure. I remember my brother and I cleaning the walls of her apartment after she moved out. They were thick with tar. Today, we understand the ramifications of cigarette tar and nicotine, in addition to the variety of harmful ingredients (some say up to 599, such as arsenic, formaldehyde and ammonia) that can be absorbed by tobacco during the cigarette production process.

Take a look at this evolution of warnings on cigarette packages as they evolved over the years:

1965 —- Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health

1970 —- Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health.

1984 —- All four below warnings required:

SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy.

SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health.

SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking by Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, and Low Birth Weight.

SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide.

The warning levels, and their credibility (caution->warning–>surgeon general’s warning) were dialed up over time, and I imagine that there were various conversations involving lots of lobbyists doing battle over the final language. At the time my vintage issue of Esquire was published in the fall of 1970, all broadcast ads for cigarettes had been prohibited by the FTC, but the warnings had not yet been incorporated into print ads. An interesting twist was the permission of broadcast ads over the 1970-71 holiday season to protect advertising revenues.

When we look back at history, tobacco companies like Philip Morris were spending at least millions each year, over the course of at least thirty years, to keep intact the image of the Marlboro Man and other advertising icons, despite their growing awareness of the untruths behind his rugged exterior. Today, we can look backwards and criticize their decision-making, but let’s get underneath that ten-gallon hat and see the world from the Marlboro Man’s vantage point.

How does a company continue to profit from a product that puts lives at risk, directly and via secondhand smoke, not to mention the clear health hazards of other tobacco products?

I think it’s easy to do, and if in their shoes I contend that you or I would have made the same decisions, because most of the time companies make incremental decisions about strategy. Changing the status quo means changing the bottom line, in this case for the worse. Yes, the studies were coming out, one after the next, but what do you do when your company’s very livelihood is clearly at risk? Or, if you have some appreciation for tobacco farmers trying to make a living, it’s understandable to have some sense of protection over the status quo. When your product and everything about it is being proven a killer, you fight to stay alive. It’s a short-term decision-making process, continued over dozens of years, that made the tobacco companies look so bad.

The 2006 film Thank You for Smoking satirized big tobacco’s spin. In the movie, there’s a scene where the main character and big tobacco spokesperson, Nick Naylor, is giving his son advice about writing a school paper. The scene begins with the father figure asking the boy, “Are you familiar with the term ‘BS?'” At the end of the scene, the father says, “That’s the beauty of argument, because if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.” This is the essence of the tobacco industry’s values and ethics dilemma. They kept up the argument, over a period of time that made their reputation worsen.

Of course, the other big factor for Philip Morris was the very nature of their business. Over time, the phenomenon of advertising to build peer pressure FOR smoking was starting to work in the opposite direction. Anti-smoking campaigns became as effective as the smoking ad campaigns, and big-time ad companies like Ogilvy pulled away from any tobacco work. Nowadays it’s common knowledge that smoking kills, and all of us know smokers who have tried to quit but couldn’t.

Alsop’s Law 4 uses Johnson & Johnson as a model for values and ethics, highlighting their credo as an exemplar. Clearly, J&J picked a winner in terms of industry space from which to make a profit. The wholesomeness of their brand is evergreen. Today, Philip Morris has tranformed into a component of the diversified brand Altria, an effort seemingly prompted by the need to take shelter underneath a brand not tainted by the issues of the tobacco industry, although most of Altria’s business appears to come from tobacco sales. Their Code of Conduct governs employee activity and is a decent model for others, but it’s not clear that Philip Morris has become more respected by the public for its values and ethics.

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4 Responses to “Alsop’s Law Four: Live Your Values and Ethics”

  1. Diamond Emory April 10, 2009 at 8:35 am #

    This was an interesting read. I actually did see the movie Thank You For Smoking..found it interesting as well. As I read your post, my mind would go to defense attorneys; defending criminals is their job. Even when they KNOW the person is guilty of the charges, no matter how horrible, their job is to get them off, definite ethics and moral dilema. Look forward to you breaking down the next Alsop Law.

    • toknowbetter April 10, 2009 at 8:40 am #

      Thanks, Diamond. I’ve heard it said that everyone deserves representation, and I suppose that’s true. Everyone has a different level of comfort being put into that ethical dilemma. For some, it’s wrong to represent the “bad guy.” For others, it’s a job, providing a service that even the “bad guys” need. Interesting convo for sure.

  2. gmonteith April 18, 2009 at 1:59 am #

    Really interesting post. I think you’re right that most of us would have gone along if we worked for Philip Morris; we’ve all probably done things on behalf of employers that we didn’t agree with. As you’re pointed out, those actions are usually incremental and so don’t carry the moral dilemmas that would be present if we had to pull the switch on a life or death decision. There’s one issue regarding tobacco that gets overlooked too often, and that is that smokers have always known tobacco was bad for them (whether it was a persistent cough or shortness of breath). As a former tobacco addict, I know how hard it is to kick the habit and I also know it can be done. We can villify tobacco companies all we want, but as long as tobacco is a legal product, we have to put some of the responsibility on consumers.

    • toknowbetter April 25, 2009 at 8:27 am #

      So true, Gene. Despite my brother’s shared experience with me of cleaning up our grandmother’s tarry apartment walls, today he is a smoker. We all worry about it, but I know that it alleviates stress for him and the addiction is so strong, he is not able to kick it. I smoked as a teenager on and off but never really took to it, but in his case it became a real habit. He knows how bad it is for him, but he has not yet gotten to the point where he can give it up. We hope he will soon, but it has got to be his decision.

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