PUBLIC RELATIONS AND BIG TOBACCO: THE SMOKING SCANDAL

The actions of public relations practitioners throughout the 20th century, specifically those employed by Big Tobacco, are considered prime examples of unethical public relations practise. Examining the work of Edward Bernays and PR mega firm Hill and Knowlton, this essay will dissect the history of public relations’ involvement with the Tobacco industry. Specifically their use of ‘unethical’ public relations techniques to manipulate and deceive the public in regards to the dangers of tobacco use, and the consequences this has for 21st century practitioners.

Edward Bernays “torches of freedom” demonstration (Tobacco Wars, 1999) saw the first large-scale success of a public relations effort in the tobacco industry. Bernays’ use of subliminal message reinforcement  (Stauber & Rampton 1995, p. 25) portrayed smoking as sexy, defiant and even patriotic. Through the 20’s and 30’s the tobacco industry continued to target female consumers, promoting tobacco as a method to supress appetite, with slogans such as “reach for a lucky instead of a sweet” (Tobacco Wars, 1999). Exploiting the insecurities of women by playing on ideas of physical appearance and sexuality.

Although Bernays did not knowingly endanger the physical health of the public in his early work with the tobacco industry, he did mislead the public as to the nature of the suffragettes ‘torches of freedom’ march. This may be considered unethical in relation to the deontological theory of ethics. The deontological theory describes “all individuals as moral agents” (Luttrell & Ward 2018, p. 14), with an obligation to treat individuals with respect and honesty, contending, “misleading visitors is highly unethical” (Luttrell & Ward 2018, p. 14).

The release of Readers Digest “Cancer by the Carton” in 1952, saw what Stauber and Rampton described as the “most successful and long running PR crisis management campaign in history” (Stauber & Rampton p 27). To combat declining cigarette sales, public relations firm Hill and Knowlton were hired to head up a team designed to increase sales and improve the public image of cigarettes. This campaign focused on “creating doubt” about the credibility of scientific studies which deemed smoking as potentially dangerous “without actually denying it” (Stauber & Rampton p 27).

Techniques such as third party advocacy were used, with doctors writing to papers branding claims cigarettes could be carcinogenic as “not true…sheer imagination” (Tobacco Wars, 1999). Subliminal message reinforcement was employed through a variety of advocacy advertising. With slogans such as “thinking man’s filter, smoking man’s taste” (Tobacco Wars, 1999) Hill and Knowlton worked to undermine and discredit the cancer causing accusations presented to the public. Smoking machines were manipulated and filters introduced, creating junk science used to discredit and cast doubt upon scientific studies. Across the 1950’s the tobacco industry’s advertising budget doubled, to $122 million, yet less than 10% of this sum was allocated to scientific research (Stauber & Rampton 1995 p.28, 29), legitimate or otherwise.

Arguably one of Big Tobaccos most unethical and manipulative public relations techniques, was the formation of phony front groups such as The Tobacco Institute. Described by Public Relations Journal as the “most formidable public relations/lobbying machine in history” (Stauber & Rampton 1995 p. 29).  Spending $20 million a year employing over 120 public relations professionals “advocating the public’s right to smoke without actually encouraging it” (Stauber & Rampton 1995, p. 27). Likewise, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee was by professionals deemed “a public relations front rather than a true scientific search for evidence” (Miller 1999 p. 144).

Employing the deontological, virtue and teleological theories of ethics, Hill and Knowlton’s public relations techniques “that today remain the PR industry’s stock and trade” (Stauber & Rampton 1995, p. 25) can be deemed unethical in a variety of ways. Examining first deontological, this theory is described as encompassing “duties not to injure others” and “improving the state of others” (Breit 2007, p 314). Through decades of misleading the public as to the dire consequences of cigarette smoking, Hill and Knowlton jeopardised the health of millions of individuals, potentially reducing both physical health and quality of life.

The virtue theory of ethics contends that ethics are comprised of three elements “seeing an end, thinking about the means to it and choosing an action” (Breit 2007, p 316). As educated individuals, with scientific reports available to them, which were unobstructed by the manipulation and false science fed to the public, it can be concluded that Hill and Knowlton likely would have been aware of the legitimate threats cigarettes posed to the public’s health. With professionals stating “there is no question that the tobacco industry knew what scientists were learning about tobacco” (Stauber and Rampton 1995 p. 28). Hill and Knowlton’s decision to continue their work with the tobacco industry, despite understanding the current and future effects their actions may have on the heath of the public, indicates that their behaviour was according to the virtue theory, unethical.

The teleological theory of ethics may be described as based upon its ability “to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question” (Breit 2007, p 314). The increased proportion of ill health and disease that long-term cigarette smoking may result in, would likely negatively impact the happiness of those affected. Taking this into account, the behaviour of Hill and Knowlton along with the tobacco industry may be deemed teleologically unethical.

It is also worth noting the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) code of ethics, which states that “the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making” (Luttrell & Ward 2018, p. 27, 28). Through techniques such as third party advocacy and junk science Hill and Knowlton, along with the tobacco industry worked to undermine and discredit accurate scientific information. Hindering the flow of “accurate and truthful information” and distorting it with their own biased science, demonstrating unethical public relations practise.

In the 1960s Hill and Knowlton “found itself increasingly pitted against its own client” (Miller 1999 p. 142) when the tobacco industry refused their suggestions to “put warning labels on cigarette packages” (Miller 1999 p. 142). Although at this later time Hill and Knowlton did attempt reparation and cut ties with the tobacco industry, their continued support of the tobacco industry’s unethical behaviour for over a decade far overshadowed this effort towards redemption.

The tobacco industry and their work with both Bernays and Hill and Knowlton, provide a prime example of varying degrees of unethical behaviour within the public relations industry. While it is no doubt on occasion difficult to make ethical decisions in contentious industries such as big tobacco, it is far from impossible. As a public relations practitioner, one must carefully evaluate the ways in which their decisions affect not only themselves and their employers, but the general public and those who their public relations efforts are targeted towards. For a public relations practitioner employed in the tobacco industry they may work to promote a new, healthy alternative to traditional cigarettes, such as ‘vaping’.

While the actions of Hill, Knowlton and Bernays throughout the 20th century were deemed by these theories, unethical, it is important to not dismiss them but consider their repercussions in a 21st century society. While technology and communication strategies may have changed and developed throughout the years, the importance of ethical communication and morality, within the public relations industry has not. It is important that instead of dismissing these behaviours as unethical, that we learn from them to avoid such vastly unethical behaviour in future public relations practices. That we develop not only strict moral and ethical values personally, but as an industry, to allow for greater ethical practices in the future.

Bibliography

Tobacco Wars (1999) British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and The Learning Channel (TLC), UK 

Stauber, J & Rampton, S 1995, ‘Smoker Hacks, in Stauber, J & Rampton, S (eds), Toxic sludge is good for you; lies, damn lies, and the public relations industry, Common Courage Press, pp. 25-3, retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

Luttrell, R & Ward, J 2018, ‘Why Ethics Matter’, in Swayze, E (eds), A Practical Guide to Ethics in Public Relations, Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 14-1, retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

Stauber, J & Rampton, S 1995, ‘Smoker Hacks, in Stauber, J & Rampton, S (eds), Toxic sludge is good for you; lies, damn lies, and the public relations industry, Common Courage Press, pp. 27-3, retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

Miller K 1999, ‘Smoke and Mirrors: Public Relations and the New Media’, in Becker, W (eds), The Voice of Business: Hill and Knowlton and Postwar Public Relations, University of North Carolina Press, pp.135-6 retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

Stauber, J & Rampton, S 1995, ‘Smoker Hacks, in Stauber, J & Rampton, S (eds), Toxic sludge is good for you; lies, damn lies, and the public relations industry, Common Courage Press, pp. 29-3, retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

Miller K 1999, ‘Smoke and Mirrors: Public Relations and the New Media’, in Becker, W (eds), The Voice of Business: Hill and Knowlton and Postwar Public Relations, University of North Carolina Press, pp.144-6 retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

Stauber, J & Rampton, S 1995, ‘Smoker Hacks, in Stauber, J & Rampton, S (eds), Toxic sludge is good for you; lies, damn lies, and the public relations industry, Common Courage Press, pp. 25-3, retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

Breit, R 2007, Professional Communication, Ethics and Accountability, in Breit R (eds), Law and Ethics for Professional Communicators, LexisNexis Butterworths, pp. 314-11, retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

Breit, R 2007, Professional Communication, Ethics and Accountability, in Breit R (eds), Law and Ethics for Professional Communicators, LexisNexis Butterworths, pp. 316-11, retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

Stauber, J & Rampton, S 1995, ‘Smoker Hacks, in Stauber, J & Rampton, S (eds), Toxic sludge is good for you; lies, damn lies, and the public relations industry, Common Courage Press, pp. 28-3, retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

Luttrell, R & Ward, J 2018, ‘Why Ethics Matter’, in Swayze, E (eds), A Practical Guide to Ethics in Public Relations, Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 27, 28-1, retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

Miller K 1999, ‘Smoke and Mirrors: Public Relations and the New Media’, in Becker, W (eds), The Voice of Business: Hill and Knowlton and Postwar Public Relations, University of North Carolina Press, pp.142-6 retrieved 20th March 2019, Ebook Library Database

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