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Archive for the 'Communication Ethics' Category

The raging popularity of the photo-sharing smartphone app Instagram offers a great opportunity to discuss the ethics of digital image manipulation.

A recent opinion piece in Ad Age asked why Instagram was not taking flak for the photo-altering filters it offers while Photoshop gets attacked as a tool for distorting the truth. (Note: the article has a touch of coarse language.) The comparison is not entirely apt, given the much more extensive editing capability that Photoshop offers, but it raises an important point.

Instagram filters let users improve or modify the appearance of photos by adjusting hues, adding sepia tone and other retro effects, adding borders, or blurring parts of the image to highlight other parts. (This article from Mashable offers a helpful introduction to Instagram.)

You can’t use Instagram to make a supermodel look like she’s made out of toothpicks, the way ad agencies and fashion magazines sometimes do with Photoshop, but you can improve the look of photo subjects and direct the eye toward certain things and away from others.

For visual business communication in general, how much dressing up is too much? At what point does persuasion change from the “truth well told,” to borrow McCann Erickson’s tagline, to deliberate deception? You can punctuate this discussion with recent cases in which cosmetics ads were deemed misleading because the airbrushed models were a little too perfect to reflect real-world results. For example, the UK advertising industry’s self-regulatory body recently sanctioned ads featuring Rachel Weisz, Julia Roberts, and Christy Turlington.

To expand the discussion about ethical communication, you might talk about how verbal communication can also be “Photoshopped,” in the sense of using more-appealing words in place of less-appealing alternatives. Anyone who has ever read a real estate ad for a “cute and cozy, one-of-a-kind bungalow” and then driven across town to find a claustrophobic shack decorated entirely with antlers and old gas station signs can relate to this phenomenon.

With visual or verbal communication, a helpful way to frame the discussion is to define the endpoints of an ethical continuum—actions that students consider unimpeachably right at one end and those they believe to be unquestionably wrong at the other. Then work inward from these endpoints to explore the gray areas between the black and white absolutes.



From Black Friday to Small Business Saturday to Cyber Monday, business communication over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is all about buy, buy, buy.

In this hypersaturated message environment, this email missive from the outdoor-clothing supplier Patagonia on Cyber Monday definitely stood out, starting with the large headline "Don't Buy This Jacket" and a large photo of one of its signature fleece jackets.

Rather than promoting the jacket as a must-get gift for holiday shoppers, Patagonia used the email to talk about the environmental impact of its products and to encourage readers to take the Common Threads Initiative pledge: reduce, repair, reuse, recycle, and reimagine.

Here's how the company explained its unusual message:

Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time – and leave a world inhabitable for our kids – we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.

The message wasn't entirely un-promotional. It did point out that the high durability of the jacket meant that wearers wouldn't need to replace it for a long time. However, this was done within the context of the "reduce" message, and it clearly stands in opposition to the planned obsolescence that drives so many product categories today—how many weeks until the next generation of smartphones replaces the perfectly functional current generation?

Was Patagonia's message a cynical ploy to gain favor with its environmentally conscious target consumer? One might jump to that conclusion, but we've been following the company for a long time and respect its managerial ethos. While the message clearly resonates with the target audience, we believe it definitely fits the criteria of ethical communication, regardless of one's personal stance on sustainable commerce: It includes the information readers need in order to make an informed response, it is true in both word and spirit, and it is not deceptive in any way. 

This is a great example of communication ethics to discuss with your students, as well as an intriguing case study in promotional communication. For example, can a company benefit in the long run by discouraging customers to buy less in the short run?

Please let us know what you and your students think about this unusual message.



You may have read about the recent episode of copyright infringement by Cook's Source magazine, in which the magazine's editor, Judith Griggs, justified her actions by asserting that the Web is "public domain," and therefore it is acceptable to reuse published material without permission. Moreover, Griggs claimed that this sort of usage occurs frequently, "especially on college campuses and [in] the workplace."

Here are three entertaining and thought-provoking writers who have commented on this story:

Monica Gaudio wrote the original material that was used without her permission.

Nick Mamatas, the source referred to above, helped spread the word about what happened.

Jonathan Bailey of PlagiarismToday wrote an insightful post about the story and clarified that Griggs' use appeared to be copyright infringement, rather than plagiarism, as most commenters are calling it, because Cook's Source apparently did mention Gaudio's name.

This episode makes for some eyebrow-raising reading on its own (the unauthorized usage is only part of the story), but it also points to several issues that make great discussion topics for the business communication course.

First, how many people actually believe that content on the Internet falls under the legal definition of being in the public domain? According to the U.S. Copyright Office, "A work of authorship is in the 'public domain' if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner." Have you ever polled your students on their understanding of this?

Second, even if material isn't legally in the public domain, how many people consider that its mere presence on the Internet makes it fair game? This might be called the "If you don't want someone to take it, don't put it online" defense.

Third, looking at the matter of delivering value of any kind via digital means, how many people would steal something in digital format but not steal an equivalent product in a different medium? Music is one of the most commonly discussed products in this regard, of course. How many people who would never dare steal a tangible CD from a music store but not think twice about taking the very same music from an intangible online source?

As a thought experiment, ask your students to think into the future, when the rapidly developing field of three-dimensional printing could mean that a variety of products can be transmitted digitally and reproduced at home using low-cost printers. Say you like some designer dinnerware you saw in a store but don't want to pay the designer's price? Download the specifications file and "print" it yourself using cheap raw materials. Even for those who try to justify making copies of songs, books, and other media products, would they draw the line at reproducing more-tangible "stuff"? What if some day you could make unauthorized copies of furniture or cars?

If you discuss these questions with your students, we'd love to hear your thoughts and reactions.



We can only assume that BP’s website has been hacked. As of October 7, 2010, the “Contacts” page in the “Gulf of Mexico Response” section of BP’s website links to a parody Twitter account, @Oil_Spill_2010. The downloadable PDF (see link above) has current captures of the BP webpage, the parody Twitter account, and BP’s real Twitter account.

This is not the first Twitter parody account associated with the spill, either. Another spoof account, @BPGlobalPR, currently has 188,000 followers—ten times more than BP’s own Twitter account.

Aside from the matter of tighter website security to prevent hacked links, this situation highlights the challenge of responding to negative information in a social media environment. Here are some related questions to discuss with your students:

  • Are parody efforts an effective form of protest communication?
  • Are such parodies ethical from the perspective of all stakeholders?
  • In general, how should a company respond to social media attacks on its reputation, particularly in the case of a Twitter account such as @BPGlobalPR, which has a much larger following than the company’s own account?
  • Should BP engage @BPGlobalPR directly (by having a company representative respond to its tweets) or indirectly (relying on its own PR efforts to counter the negative information)?
  • How should a company respond if someone is spreading demonstrably false information about its products, operations, or executives?


This recent article from the New York Times addresses the challenge of preventing cheating on homework projects and tests. The use of technology to check assignments for plagiarism and to monitor students during exams certainly seems to be growing. However, not all instructors or institutions buy into this approach, with some advocating the less-adversarial approach of instilling an atmosphere of honor and trust.

This is not a simple either/or question, to be sure, but in terms of overall emphasis, do you lean toward fostering an environment of trust or relying on monitoring systems to prevent cheating? Is the honor system realistic, even if it is the preferred strategy?