Communication and Ethics

Here is an interesting case that would work well in any communication class dealing with ethics. 

In Sunday's New York TimesChuck Klosterman, the Ethicist, was asked if it was ethical for a beer company to bottle the exact same beer but package it in two different type bottles with different labels, one “regular” and one “premium.” The answer from the ethicist was that this was not unethical since the brewer didn’t say these beers were different; it was left it up to the customer to make the inference.  “It only becomes unethical,” says Klosterman, “if the brewer claimed the premium beverage was literally different.” This is nonsense, IMHO. The brewer did say, claim, communicate that the beers were different by the different bottles and the different labels. The label “premium” means that the product is different from one that is not labeled “premium.”  To limit communication to words seems a bit naïve and leaves us with a conclusion that is intuitively incorrect and unacceptable. This was clearly an act of deception—the intention of the brewer was to fool the buyer—but this goes unrecognized and unidentified because the way in which communication works is misunderstood.  


Christian Fey said...

I agree completely Joseph (Joe?)! The interesting case is whether it would be unethical to charge different prices for two identical products bottled and labeled differently, without leading words (like Premium, Reserve, etc.) to indicate an implied (or inferred) "better" to one product. Where do ethics lie when it comes to products labeled "Fall Harvest" and "Pumpkin Ale" which are identical. If I charge 20% more for Pumpkin Ale, I would guess that there are no ethical issues because I'm simply describing the products differently.

Joseph DeVito said...

I think I'd agree with that, Christian. It's much like medications that are labeled differently--for allergies and for sleeplessness or those for headaches, backaches, and leg problems--but the active ingredient is the same. Joe

Anita Clyne said...

There is no way this is ethical. Most consumers know "premium" means more money. Think about at the gas pumps comparatively speaking for those who do not drink ale. This is a producer's way of a very extra bucks for a no better quality. To me, it's unethical.

J Lollis said...

I’m not certain I have enough information to weigh in on this completely, but from the view of Nicholas Rescher, if a suspicious communication behavior stems by accident, i.e., unintentionally, it is not considered unethical; but when intentional its unethical. “Undoubtedly, the person who sets out deliberately to deceive others by means of improper reasoning is morally culpable.” (Richard L. Johannesen, 2008, p. 8) In Moralities of Everyday Life, it draws a close relationships between responsibility and intent in that we are responsible for what we intend to do, what we are trying to do. (Richard L. Johannesen, 2008, p. 9) All that said, in my opinion, the brewers are guilty of unethical packaging because they intended to deceive the consumer.

Richard L. Johannesen, K. S. (2008). Ethics in Human Communication (6th ed.). Long
Grove, IL, USA: Waveland.

Zach Glossip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lori McCarty said...

I could not disagree with Chuck Klosterman more that this type of marketing or advertising is ethical. This is an example of suggestive advertising that, while not an out-and-out untruth, "suggests" to the consumer that one beer is in some way superior to the other beer while doing nothing to counter the obvious suggestion. "Suggestive advertising...is that which seeks to bypass human powers of reason or to some degree render them inoperative" (Johannesen, Valde & Whedbee, 2008). To me this is a perfect example of bypassing the human powers of reason. If a tricky marketing tactic was not at work, and both beers were in the same label next to each other on the shelf, a regular consumer, employing their powers of reasoning, would not reasonably pay more for one beer than the other. By using the claim of "premium" and a new label on one beer, you are bypassing the consumer's rational decision-making process which would tell him or her that it is irrational to pay more for one bottle of beer than the other when they are the same in every way. What makes it even more unethical is the intent of the reasoning bypass, which in this case would be to make extra profit for the beer company. This violates several accepted ethical standards for public communication.

Lori McCarty
Drury University

Johannesen, R.L., Valde, K.S., & Whedbee, K.E. (2008). Ethics in Human Communications (6th ed.). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

Stevn Northean said...

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