|Rhetorical Analysis of a Corporate Website: Philip Morris, Ethos, and Ethics Page 1 of 4|
|Written by Melanie Wilson|
Although many centuries have passed since the ancient Greeks developed the first theories of rhetoric, their concepts still can be used to understand how businesses today struggle to find a balance between ethics and expediency when writing their annual reports or creating websites. Corporations like Philip Morris, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, have an especially difficult time in balancing their wish to appear ethical with their desire to be profitable. Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Gorgias, studied and debated the same complex rhetorical situation that present-day corporations face.
The Philip Morris USA corporate website is a fascinating modern example of rhetoric. Philip Morris is the largest tobacco company in the United States. Yet, as required by the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) that they have with the government, an anti-smoking campaign is now featured on their website. According to the agreement, the website is supposed to inform the general public about the potential hazards of using cigarettes and other assorted products with nicotine. This entails presenting facts and statistics that could potentially portray their products and the company as a whole in a negative light. The website features many rhetorical elements to get its messages across including ethos, pathos, and logos sometimes in an obvious way, but at other times much more subtly.
Multiple Audiences and Varying Messages
The goal of the website is to address three very different audiences: the concerned parents, the smokers or shareholders, and the government agencies that mandated this anti-smoking campaign. The messages are unique for each audience. Parents sigh with relief when they read over and over that “adults” are the targeted consumers of Philip Morris’s products. According to the website, children are not even considered consumers for the addictive substances. The government agencies are relieved when they see health warnings, statistics, and the disclaimer on the bottom right of the homepage that states: “This is the corporate website of Philip Morris USA. It does not sell, advertise, or offer promotions for our products.” To smokers it may seem as though Philip Morris USA really does care about its consumers. In the eyes of the cigarette consumers and investors, the paranoid anti-smoking lobbyists are just blowing everything out of proportion by making the company create such a campaign. The speaker, or corporate persona, of the site comes across as a very knowledgeable, dedicated staff member of Philip Morris who is concerned not only about the welfare of the consumers but also the global image of the company. This persona is effective because it portrays the individuals behind the corporation as responsible, caring citizens.
One message can certainly work in different ways when it comes to addressing varied audiences. This concept can be illustrated with the classic Aristotelian triangle. The corners represent the speaker, the audience, and the means to an end, or message, intended for the specified audience. In this particular example, there are three major audiences and therefore three possible triangles. The message for government agencies and parents is that smoking is harmful, it should be avoided by everyone, and that there are many ways to educate a child and discourage them from wanting to try cigarettes or tobacco products. The means to an end for these audiences is to include enough information to satisfy the MSA, but not so much that their products look entirely undesirable. I believe that the website is not as convincing as it ought to be in certain sections and therefore may give the remaining audience, the smokers, a different message. One example of the website lacking in information can be found in the “Smoking & Health Issues” section under the “Our Products” tab. There is a brief synopsis on topics such as “Smoking & Disease in Smokers”, “Addiction”, “Smoking & Pregnancy”, and “Surgeon General Reports,” but the links provided underneath those topics for elaboration often lead to irrelevant places or do not supply much more information. In navigating the site I realized that it is vague in many places and occasionally rambles, rendering some sections almost completely ineffective. Under the “Ingredients” tab, there was not a clear bullet-point list of ingredients as I had expected. Instead, there were lengthy paragraphs that linked to other places and gave no real information about what a cigarette contains. Later on, after doing a more comprehensive search, I was able to locate their product’s ingredients. However, the fact that I had initial trouble with this task suggests that others will as well who may not spend as much time looking through the site as I did. These manipulations of the site serve as discreet methods of persuasion in favor of keeping their customers. Their means to an end when it comes to their consumers is to use subtle persuasion so that they can still have a successful business.
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