by Abrar Almajnuni
[This is the fourth article in a series of guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of their graduate programs.]
The ad suggested that although there had been recent reports that cigarette smoking was linked to cancer, they doubted the scientific credibility of the studies and further believed that cigarettes were not harmful to people’s health. Because of this belief, the ad suggested that the tobacco industry would fund research into the issue. It was signed by several CEOS and presidents of leading tobacco manufacturers. Following the publication of this advertisement, the tobacco industry took systematic steps to dilute the credibility of the scientific evidence that tobacco causes cancer Public relations departments for the industry developed messages that emphasized personal responsibility. In the decades that followed this public relations blitz, millions of people throughout the world have died from health issues related to smoking
For public relations professionals, the historic precedent set by the tobacco industry is an example of how unethical the practice can become. Here was a product that was increasingly associated with health damage, yet public relations campaigns and tactics were used to mask the truth. . There may be an inclination to see the lessons of this period in the history and take comfort that ethics in practice has evolved beyond this level. However, there is a possibility that it has not.
Arguably, at this point in history the fast food industry is wreaking havoc on the health of some of the most vulnerable members of the society- i.e. children. According to studies conducted by the Institute of Medicine, the fast food industry intentionally directs their advertising to children who are too young to tell the difference between truth and advertising, thus enticing them to eat food that is packed with fat, sugar and salt and low in the vital nutrientsThe result is that obesity in children is rapidly rising and along with it, many of the diseases that are associated with obesity. These include diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer
An analysis of the pattern of public relations messages developed by the fast food industry bears a significant resemblance to the messages that were crafted by the tobacco industry. Scholars Brownell and Warner undertook a systematic comparison of the two industries and found the following similarities in the messages that were being delivered by spokespeople for these industry:
- That choice of food is about personal responsibility and freedom, and government regulation is antithetical to freedom;
- The use of scare words like communism, socialism and fascists e.g. “food police”;
- Suggestions that studies regarding the effect of the junk food industry are “junk science”;
- Indicating that people should exercise rather than diet;
- Suggesting that there is no such thing as good food or bad food: it’s all about balance.
It is the responsibility of public relations practitioners to frame the industry’s communications with the public. Although it is arguably difficult for the practitioner to make decisions about the way that messages are presented to the public, the facts of the case suggest that here are ethical problems with the industries current framing of the message. Consider the full page public relations piece that was printed in the New York Times earlier this year…
In it, Coca Cola promises to offer low or no-calorie drinks and emphasizes exercise, rather than diet.
The problem is that for the fast food industry, like the tobacco industry, the problems with obesity and its related diseases would best be helped if people ate less of their products, which runs counter to their main objective. Messinasuggests that knowing the public’s best interest is not always possible, whereas in some cases there is a strong case that it can be identified. In that instance, what should a public relations professional do?
Abrar ALmajnuni is a student in the Master of Public Relations degree program at Mount Saint Vincent University.
Brownell, K., & Warner, K. (2009). The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food? Millbank Quarterly, 260-294.
Hill, J. (n.d). On the topic of the Hill & Knowlton public relations campaign formulated on behalf of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. Retrieved from ttlaonline.com: http://www.ttlaonline.com/HKWIS/hksplash.htm
McGinnis, J., Gootman, J., & Kraak, V. (2006). Food marketing to children and youth: threat or opportunity? Washington, D.C: National Academic Press.
Messina, A. (2007). Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: an ethical approach. Journal of Communication Management, 11(1), 29 – 52.
Nestle, M. (2006). Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity — A Matter of Policy. New England of Journal Medicine, 354(24), 2527-2529.
Nestle, M. (2013, May 31). Annals of public relations: the food industry vs.obesity. Retrieved from Food Politics: http://www.foodpolitics.com/2013/05/annals-of-public-relations-the-food-industry-vs-obesity/
 Hill, J. (n.d). On the topic of the Hill & Knowlton public relations campaign formulated on behalf of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. Retrieved from ttlaonline.com: http://www.ttlaonline.com/HKWIS/hksplash.htm
 Brownell, K., & Warner, K. (2009). The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food? Millbank Quarterly, 260-294.
 McGinnis, J., Gootman, J., & Kraak, V. (2006). Food marketing to children and youth: threat or opportunity? Washington, D.C: National Academic Press.
 Nestle, M. (2006). Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity — A Matter of Policy. New England of Journal Medicine, 354(24), 2527-2529.
 Messina, A. (2007). Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: an ethical approach. Journal of Communication Management, 11(1), 29 – 52.