By Steve Kehnel
October 19, 2001
The Post (Athens, Ohio)
Sometimes things are shocking in their predictability.
This past week, the Phillip Morris Corporation visited Ohio University to present a discussion entitled, “Is it possible to change a company in America’s eyes?” that focused on the role of public relations in altering the tobacco giant’s damaged image. Stating that the company is “willing to try,” a “corporate communications’ representative spoke of the various goodwill campaigns PMC has undertaken to present itself in a more favorable light.
While any fundraising effort to benefit others certainly is positive and welcome, the underlying goals of these actions also must be taken into account to truly understand why they were necessary in the first place. To downplay its image primarily as a tobacco company, since the mid 1980s, PMC has purchased General Foods, Kraft Foods, Miller Brewing Company, Post Cereals and many other non-tobacco companies.
Additionally, PMC has embarked on both voluntary and legally mandated campaigns to deter teen smoking. This might seem counter-productive, as profit hinges on constantly renewing its customer base. But in the end, Phillip Morris will benefit from such image alterations. Not only will the company name be allowed in television ads, but it also will appear as a more benign organization. Because PMC states its intentions to prevent teen smoking, they must be doing just that, right? As the PMC representative statd numerous times, “We can all agree that kids shouldn’t smoke.”
But how is it, then, that PMC sponsors youth soccer leagues in China and hands out free packs of cigarettes at rock concerts in Eastern Europe? Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that Phillip Morris hopes we don’t think they want U.S. kids to smoke.
Certainly people will argue the laws are different in these countries, and it is legal for teenagers elsewhere to smoke tobacco. In other words, it is a simple cultural sensitivity issue. Yet, if the U.S.-based Phillips Morris Corporation claims to value children’s lives and wishes to curb teen smoking, it shouldn’t really matter in what country teens reside and what laws govern their behavior.
After all, human health and death are universal, no matter what institution attempts to exert its power over our decisions and regulate human autonomy.
Beyond this notion of viewing tobacco as a culturally relative rite of passage, the most horrific fact of this example of Phillip Morris is that it makes sense. What is seemingly irrational behavior becomes rational within a capitalist economic system.
Marketing tobacco to kids elsewhere while simultaneously speaking against youth smoking in the United States is acceptable within the current economic structure. I’m sure people reading this have said to themselves, “Of course Phillip Morris hooks as many people as possible on cigarettes because it will maximize profit.”
This line of thinking is completely understandable, making its predictability much more frightening. Contradictions in intent and practice, anti-humanitarian policies and elaborate attempts to conceal facts in the form of “public relations” seem logical when profit is the ultimate goal.
PMC is certainly not the only guilty party here. There are countless examples of companies that have maintained their economic power at the expense of many. The truly guilty party is the economic system that has fostered such a twisted form of rationality, where abusive corporate practice is justified, if not expected.
To examine domestic and global social problems, it is critical that we pierce the box in which we exist” where profitable aims eventually trump human needs. Certainly many beneficial things have been developed within our economic system, but that should in no way cloud the overwhelmingly negative impact it has had, and continues to have, across the globe.
It is essential that we examine economic alternatives where truly rational thought prevails. Without such an objective, PMC and others can continue “working to make a difference,” to the detriment of us all.