Alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals: compromises between marketing and ethics

alcohol, tobacco, marketing

In socially controversial sectors, marketing professionals who promote potentially harmful products are faced with a conflict of values. This is the case for the tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical industries. Between economic logic and established social norms, how do these individuals handle the negative view of their profession? Loréa Baïada-Hirèche is a researcher in business ethics at Institut Mines-Télécom Business School. Through stories of marketers’ “guilty consciences,” she attempts to shed light on the ways in which professionals come to terms with the ethical concerns of their practices, and the neutralization techniques at work.


In France, tobacco and alcohol are responsible for 78,000 and 41,000 deaths respectively every year. and the pharmaceutical industry is regularly shaken by health scandals like the one caused by the Mediator drug or Essure implants. Consequently, working in controversial sectors can pose ethical problems. “Ethics is the field of knowledge that aims to guide individuals’ action by distinguishing between right and wrong ways of behaving. It seeks to answer the question, ‘What should I do?'” explains Loréa Baïada-Hirèche, a researcher in business ethics at Institut Mines–Télécom Business School.

This question arises in particular for employees involved in marketing or promoting harmful or socially questionable products. This leads to a conflict of norms on two levels: on one hand, between the norms of society and those of the organization, and on the other, between the norms of the organization  and those of the individual. How do these professionals experience and handle the ethical issues they are faced at their level? What strategies do they use to ease their guilty consciences? Loréa Baïada-Hirèche and her colleagues have explored this difficult issue.

Small ethical compromises

Their research focused on the tobacco and alcohol industries on one hand, and on the healthcare  industry on the other. The researchers conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with professionals from these three sectors, 17 from the tobacco and alcohol industries and 13 from the healthcare industry. For the researcher, “The qualitative method allowed us to first collect narratives in order to thoroughly analyze individuals’ reasoning and they way they reconstruct and interpret their experiences.”  In short, the goal was to study the subjectivity of marketers’ narratives to focus precisely on the specific characteristics of their justifications within a context.

In their analysis, the researchers combined two complementary theories from the sociology of deviance. The first is the cognitive dissonance theory, which explains that a state linked to a conflict of values is a source of suffering for individuals who therefore seek to protect themselves by reducing this conflict in various ways. The second is the neutralization theory, which identifies several justification techniques through which individuals seek to protect themselves from moral condemnation when their behavior does not align with socially accepted norms– such as denying adverse effects, denying responsibility or denying victims. “Using neutralizations makes it possible to diminish or eliminate the ethical issues involved in decisions,” continues Loréa Baïada-Hirèche.

In order to protect themselves from moral condemnations, feel less guilty and maintain their self-esteem, marketers establish several categories of arguments which rely on neutralization techniques identified by sociologists who study deviance. “For tobacco and alcohol, our study reveals three argument strategies: emphasizing the ethical value of the business through a virtuous organization; lack of accountability due to a law that is too restrictive; and economic rationalization related to the generous compensation provided by the organization. For healthcare, certain individuals turn a blind eye and deny the harmful effects, highlighting the drive for profitability, while others mention the patient benefit to emphasize their general interest mission, and still others go so far as to leave the industry. The impact on employee well-being appears to be greater in these cases,” explains Loréa Baiada-Hireche.

Emphasizing the ethical value of the business and using economic logic

Downplaying the risks occurs primarily in the alcohol industry. Challenging the image of alcohol in people’s minds as a controversial product, marketers who engage in this justification process  emphasize the high quality of the products, such as high-end alcohol. “The respondents stress that it is not the product itself that poses a problem, but rather the consumption practices, in particular in certain groups including young people and pregnant women,” adds the researcher. Using legal restrictions as a way to avoid accountability seems to be a particularly strong justification technique within the tobacco industry. According to the marketers, French law is extremely restrictive and has left them with no real freedom and little leeway to do their job– the imposed neutral pack, tobacco advertising ban, required educational  messages for certain products etc.  “What we see is that accountability is transferred from the company that sells the harmful products to the individuals who consume them. In the case of tobacco, consumers’ freedom of choice is an ambivalent justification, either for denying tobacco producers’ liability in legal proceedings, or for defending civil rights in public relations activity,” explains the researchers.

For the healthcare industry, this strategy of denying harmful affects is, for some, akin to adding new cognitions, by upholding the economic dimension and insisting on the profitability of their industry, which, among other things, helps fund medical research.  Conversely, for a second group, economic logic is overshadowed by the health mission being pursued. These respondents do not mention the profits generated by their work. They insist on the benefits for patients, the seriousness of the professionals with whom they work, particularly in terms of approval from doctors, who are experts in their field. “Here we see the ambivalent nature of the patient benefit argument, which, instead of  preventing concerns, is used to justify them,” says Loréa Baïada-Hirèche and her colleagues.

The final strategy used by respondents in the tobacco and alcohol industries is economic rationalization, meaning economic necessity or an opportunity that compensates for the ethical cost, arriving at the conclusion that it is, ultimately, just a job. In these sectors as well as in the healthcare industry, certain marketers eventually leave their position, as they become aware of the predominance of the economic logic to the detriment of the health mission. Leaving, or radically changing one’s behavior appears to be the only way to reduce their sense of guilt.

Overall, although it is experienced more or less consciously, the researchers were able to observe  uneasiness in their respondents. This is evidenced by how difficult it was to obtain interviews with marketers in these sectors: the researchers had to rely on their personal networks to carry out this sensitive research. “Our aim is to help these employees become more conscious of the defense mechanisms individuals put in place to justify themselves, which are often easier to recognize in others. It’s important for companies to develop and maintain opportunities for discussion to tackle these ethical dilemmas,” concludes Loréa Baïada-Hirèche. Among other things, this will limit suffering in the workplace.

Article written (in French) by Anne-Sophie Boutaud, for I’MTech.


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