Monday, December 28, 2009

How Much Fakery is Too Much Fakery?

On the wall of the art studio at my high school was a quote from Pablo Picasso: "Art is the lie that tells the truth."

In fashion photography, it seems to have become the lie that tells a lie.

With the after-Christmas sales well under way, I've been thinking about restocking my closet a bit, which has had me paying more attention to catalogues and magazines.

Photographs have been manipulated since the technology was first invented, and fashion photographs have always traded in an induced sense of inadequacy -- or why hire preternaturally beautiful people to wear the clothes? True, it's been years since I was young enough, and foolish enough, to think, "If I wear that dress / sweater / coat / pair of pants / whatever, I'll look as good as she does." But every year, it seems, the standards of "pretty enough" -- and especially, "thin enough" -- get higher and more unobtainable.

The image above -- of former Ralph Lauren model Filippa Hamilton -- has been widely shared on the Internet, at sites like and (where it was included in the site's 2009 "Photoshop of Horrors Hall of Shame"). Comments poured in, both about the absurdity of the image itself (how many women, even extraordinarily thin ones, have a head larger than their pelvis?), and about the decision by Ralph Lauren to terminate Hamilton's contract because, at 5'9" and 120 lbs., she is too fat.

With rates of eating disorders rising in the industrialized world (and now affecting young men as well as young women), there have been calls for legislative restrictions. In late September, for example, the UK's Telegraph reported on calls in France to require digitally-enhanced photographs to carry clear warnings that changes have been made to the image.

In a brief article, New York magazine reported on proposed French and British legislation, and noted that the "U.K.'s Committee of Advertising Practice, which is responsible for the country's code of advertising, just received a report authored by more than 40 academics recommending a ban on Photoshopped ads targeted at girls younger than 16."

Friday, December 11, 2009

If You Really Believe You're Right, You Shouldn't Have to Lie

If that's the case, then what does it say about what the health insurance companies are doing?

A friend of mine brought my attention to this post at Business Insider. Basically, health insurance companies are using Facebook virtual currency to get game players to email Congress about their supposed opposition to the health-care reform bill.

As article author Nicholas Carlson points out, the companies are exploiting Facebook gamers' desire to obtain more virtual currency (to help them move up the ranks in games like Farmville), by offering currency in exchange for "trying" a new product or service.

But in this case, "Instead of asking the gamers to try a [specific] product..., "Get Health Reform Right" requires gamers to take a survey, which, upon completion, automatically sends the following email to their Congressional Rep: 'I am concerned a new government plan could cause me to lose the employer coverage I have today. More government bureaucracy will only create more problems, not solve the ones we have.'"

"Astroturfing" like this (i.e. fake grass-roots movements) isn't new, and it's not illegal. But it is completely unethical.

This particular instance is the product of an innocuous-sounding (ain't it always the way?!) organization: "Get Health Reform Right", which describes itself as a "project of organizations whose shared mission is to ensure consumers continue to have access to employer-sponsored healthcare plans." (Full disclosure here: My personal definition of "Getting Health Reform Right" would be 100% single-payer.)

Who is/are "Get Health Reform Right"? Carlson did a little research, and came up with the following organizations: Completely disinterested parties, wouldn't you say?

My own skeptical inclination is to think that if the established health-care players are so concerned by even the not-even-close-to-what-I-would-have-hoped-for legislation working its way through Congress, it must be pretty damn good.

Or they wouldn't have to lie like this to get their messages sent.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cellphone Ethics, not Etiquette

I could write a very long rant about cellphone etiquette, as I'm sure you could too. Who hasn't be subjected to VERY LOUD "conversations" along the lines of "so, he's like, I totally didn't mean that, and I'm like, You are so busted, and she goes (yadda yadda yadda)"? Not to mention the phones that ring (and are answered) during theater performances, concerts, and movies. Not to mention... But you get the idea.

Instead, I'd like to think about this quote, which I found in Matt Richtel's article in today's New York Times on "Promoting the Car Phone, Despite Risks":

"If you’re an engineer, you don’t want to outlaw the great technology you’ve been working on... If you’re a marketing person, you don’t want to outlaw the thing you’ve been trying to sell. If you’re a C.E.O., you don’t want to outlaw the thing that’s been making a lot of money."

Richtel identifies the speaker as Bob Lucky, a now-retired former director at Bell Labs.

It's a great insight into a key problem in corporate ethics: When you have a great new product, how carefully do you want to look at its potential problems?

Lucky and other early developers were aware of the potential for "distracted driving". A former Motorola engineer admits that "I’d pass by the exit I was supposed to take because I was talking on the phone."

"Thinking back, he said he was 'absolutely' aware of potential dangers but did not think roads would become filled with distracted drivers."

One distracted driver, of course, is all it really takes, especially at high speeds and on a congested roadway.

The tough question is how to encourage corporations to build in a "devil's advocate" position into their operations: someone whose job it is to think about potential negative ramifications of a new product or technology and not just its upside marketing potential. Where such a role is played, it's usually taken on by legal (which is why we have all those great little warnings on not misusing the products we buy).

In this case, I'd like to see one cellphone manufacturer or service provider take the high road and stake out a safety zone -- be the Volvo of cellphones if you like -- perhaps by engineering a phone that won't work if it passes through x number of cell transmitters in y minutes (although this would prevent passengers from using their phones too).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sins of Omission Are Still Sins

I really hadn't wanted to write anything about the Salahis, the couple who apparently gate-crashed last week's White House dinner, because who would want to give such camera hogs even more attention? But alas here I am, writing about them.

Or more precisely, about NBC "News".

Michaele Salahi apparently harbors aspirations of "starring" on the Bravo cable channel's reality show, Real Housewives of D.C., and while she and her husband were entering the White House, they were followed by a Bravo camera crew.

Monday morning, the Today show, which, while generally fluffy infotainment, is a part of the news division, had the Salahis as guests. At no point in the interview -- or in the next day's followup -- did Matt Lauer mention that Bravo and NBC are corporate siblings, both part of NBC Universal. In fact, both are based in New York's Rockefeller Center.

As reported by Brian Stelter in today's New York Times, "Both NBC and the couple say that they received no money for appearing on the 'Today Show.' An NBC staff member suggested Wednesday that the couple selected Mr. Lauer in a good-will gesture to NBC and, by extension, Bravo."

According to Stelter, NBC's Nightly News, when reporting on the issue Tuesday, "did note the corporate connection".

Did the corporate connection affect the questions that Mr. Lauer posed? Probably not. But wouldn't you feel more confident about it if you had known the connection ahead of time rather than after the fact?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

MBA Oath Now Has More Than 1700 Signatories

Back in May, I commented on the new MBA Oath, started by some second-year Harvard Business School students, in which they promised to "create value responsibly and ethically." I hoped it would take effect, but was a little skeptical -- after all, 50% of marriages end up in divorce despite that "'til death do us part" line.

Now, reports Business Week, more than 1700 students and recent graduates have signed, not just from Harvard, but also from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, Yale School of Management, Foster School of Business (at U. of Washington), Fuqua School of Business at Duke, and many others.

The oath begins, "As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can create alone." (click here for the oath's website)

The Harvard ethics oath is not the first (both INSEAD and Thunderbird claim that honor), but it appears to be the first to have gone viral in a fairly impressive way.

While the oath is "just words", its intent is greater than that. As an earlier Business Week article pointed out, "
the oath's creators have big plans for the future of the project. In addition to eventually having hundreds of thousands of MBAs sign the pledge, they want it to be part of a much more ambitious agenda to professionalize the occupation of management, transforming it into a vocation much like medicine or law."

Both medicine and law require more than oaths; they require licensure, and that license carries teeth. A doctor can lose her license to practice, and a lawyer can be disbarred. Will managers willingly put themselves under such rigorous oversight?