Media Monday: PR Lessons from “Thank You For Smoking (2005)”

By: Aron Harris

The Movie:

Based on the 1994 satirical novel, Thank You For Smoking follows the professional life of Nick Naylor, a charismatic spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies whose main priority is not to prove he is right, but to prove you’re wrong. Being a lobbyist for smoking, he aims not to convince the public that cigarettes are good for them, but rather they aren’t any more harmful for you that any other consumer product that results in thousands of deaths per year (cars, nicotine patches and even cheese). Nick takes complex pride in his work, referring to himself as the “Face of Cigarettes” while also trying to remain a role model for his son at a time when the media continues to turn him into the most hated man alive.

As the film progresses, though, we begin to see Nick’s internal struggle. When Nick’s company needs an initiative to promote smoking as “cool,” Nick immediately turns to Hollywood, feeling it can bring the “sex back into cigarettes.” He makes plans with an agent to have cigarettes placed in an upcoming movie that will feature the main character smoking to create a positive role model for smoking (a technique known as product placement).

As he begins to take on more tasks to promote smoking in a favorable manner, including bribes and twisted interviews, he begins to realize the ethics in his work are interfering with his own dignity, especially after an exposé is released by a reporter he was intimate with about what he’s done in his job and how he continues his line of work to “pay the mortgage.” As the film closes with Nick choosing to step down from his position, we reflect on the ethical struggle many PR and communication professionals take on: maintaining honesty in their work.

PR Takeaways:

After watching Thank You For Smoking, it’s evident that a good portion of the public still has a cynical view of public relations specialists, believing that their sole purpose is to put a “spin” on the truth to conceal the negatives of what is being promoted to the public, be it a product, belief or image of a company or person. While it’s not correct to say the field is absent of any propaganda, it is unfair to label all PR professionals as “spin doctors.”

The Public Relations Society of America takes pride in promoting honesty, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public, whereas Nick Naylor misinforms the public through doublespeak and dirty tactics to prove his point.  Someone like Nick Naylor isn’t a reason to completely stereotype the PR world, because for every practitioner like him is a PR specialist who is doing their job in an ethical manner by putting truth before anything else. If anything, Thank You For Smoking should serve as a reminder that regardless of the high-tech, innovative world we live in today, us PR pros need to always value ethics.

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