Magazine editors are a strange lot. They come up with a one-line article idea on a whim and expect you to make something substantial out of it. “Business lessons from movies” was what this editor gave me. Now why would anyone think of something like that? Why take a fun activity like movie watching and burden it with lesson gleaning? When I gave it a little more thought, it did seem like an interesting challenge. After all, books and movies are mediums of communication and what is to prevent then from dispensing business wisdom. Strangely, the first movie that came to my mind was not something like Wall Street or closer home Guru which have glaringly obvious corporate themes. The movie I wanted to write about was the low-brow, critically acclaimed Indie gem Thank you for smoking.
The Ethics of Business
The protagonist in the movie is a man who self admittedly makes money by talking. He is a lobbyist for the ridiculously named Academy of Tobacco Studies, a consortium of tobacco manufacturers, where research is done solely with the capitalistic aim of disproving the health hazards of cigarettes. He smooth-talks, oozes confidence, corners social activists, and helps sustain the market for tobacco. The crux of the movie is about his handling of a senate committee which wants to implement stronger, harsher warning labels on cigarette cartons and the misadventures he encounters along the way. Thank you for smoking doesn’t explicitly attempt to take a stand and defend the morality of people who work for the tobacco industry. In fact it brings such a nonchalant perspective to issues that normally trigger profoundly ethical discussions that it gives these very issues a refreshing perspective.
The key takeaway of the movie for me was the way we look at certain kinds of businesses, like the liquor industry or the arms industry. When viewed without one’s morality glasses, these businesses are just the same, a means for people to make a living. But, once you begin to think about the ethics of earning money, by making and selling products that could cause potential harm to its consumers, it completely changes the complexion of that business. The movie questions the validity of us passing such judgments by exposing the subjectivity of our morality. When we can consider the tobacco industry to be tainted because it so openly distributes a medically proven cancer causing agent, why don’t we apply the same logic to a cheese manufacturer when it can be medically proven that it can increase the risk of heart attacks? Isn’t this blatant dichotomy in the way we see things purely a matter of convenience? Thank you for smoking chooses to deal with this issue using a fundamental business concept- the free market. As long as there are buyers for the product you sell, who are aware of its dangers and choose to consume it of their own volition it is a pointless exercise to try and analyse the ethics of such a transaction. When there is no arm twisting or coercion to buy and there is no misrepresentation of facts, isn’t selling tobacco like selling any other product? One might argue there is a deliberate attempt to conceal or downplay the negatives of the product in order to get more people to buy it. But don’t they have a politically correct word to describe that? Isn’t that word marketing? And isn’t that what all businesses do?
The Business of Ethics
In a beautifully scripted scene at the end of the movie, the protagonist is asked if he will let his son smoke when he reaches the age of 18. And he says it is entirely his son’s choice and if he decides to, he would buy him his first pack. That he remains consistent and believes that his son should have the same right to choose as his customers is testament to the fact that his ethics are firmly in place. In a burgeoning economy like India, its commonplace for activists to raise a hue and cry about the big bad retail giant gobbling up the small shop owner and questioning the ethics of allowing such a thing to happen. It is an inevitable fallout of growth- smaller businesses lose out to bigger businesses. Passing a moral judgment on the big business is like passing one on a man who works for a tobacco firm. However, if the big business in its attempt to drive out the competition flouted laws and violated good business practices, then it is pretty much like the man who works in a tobacco company but does not let his family smoke because of its ill-effects.
Thank you for smoking, does not say that it is incorrect to view a business through a prism of morals. It just stresses the need for focusing on that prism, at the right spot.