Friday 12 November 2010

Inception: Corporate Ethics in Mind by Ken Peattie

Below is an essay written by Professor Ken Peattie, director of the ESRC Centre for Business Relationships Accountability, Sustainability and Society (BRASS) at Cardiff Univesrity and relates to our sciSCREENing of Inception in August.

'Spying for Queen and Country in movies, and the spy as a stock movie character, has a long tradition dating back nearly 100 years to silent movies produced during the First World War. Spy movie milestones since then include Fritz Lang’s 1928 film Spies, several Hitchcock Cold War spy movies, decades from the JB Franchises (Messrs Bond and Bourne) and no shortage of spy spoofs from Get Smart to Austin Powers.

Corporate Espionage by contrast has had a lower profile and a less glamorous persona, although recent films such as Duplicity, Cypher and now Inception have begun to correct this. Curiously though, number one in the FullMovieReview chart for the heading ‘Movies About Corporate Espionage’ is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Who knew that chocolate recipes were so secret?

Perhaps because corporate espionage involves more quiet (and the quieter the better) information gathering and less guns and gadgetry, it has been considered less cinematic. Ironically the virtual antithesis of corporate espionage has been considered a better subject for movies. ‘Whistleblowing’, the revealing of inside information that companies would rather keep quiet, has been the subject of films like The Whistleblower, The Insider and The Informant. In 2009 Whistleblowing even got its own film festival launched in Washington DC. Given recent events I would be very surprised if ‘Wikileaks – The Movie’ isn’t already in development somewhere.

Another problem with industrial espionage as a topic is that it can be tricky to draw the line between it and legitimate corporate intelligence gathering. Some of the big cases are straightforward because they concern the simple theft of information, like Volkswagen’s lifting of General Motors plans which cost them $100 million after they were caught (although not following GM’s plans would probably have saved them more money). Other cases are less straightforward, and both the ethics and the legality of some corporate activities have been hotly disputed. Just this month some leading websites, including sites owned by Disney and Warner Bros, have been hit with a law suit alleging that they secretly and illegally tracked the Web movements of their users, including children.

There have been a range of corporate espionage scandals, many involving highly respected companies. In 2001, Proctor & Gamble were caught going through the rubbish at Unilever's Chicago offices in the hope of finding new shampoo formulas. That and a few other similar activities cost P&G $10 million in damages paid to Unilever. In 2006 Hewlett Packard tried to track down the internal source of leaks to journalists. They resorted to bugging their own employees and sending fake emails to journalists to install logging software on their computers. This led to the Chair of their Board, Patricia Dunn, facing criminal charges and being forced to resign for authorizing the use of espionage. Hilton hotels were hit with a corporate espionage lawsuit after hiring Ross Klein and nine other managers behind their competitor Starwood's successful W brand of luxury hotels. After Klein developed the luxury Denizen brand for Hilton in 2009, Starwood sued Hilton for going beyond poaching their managers to actually stealing their ideas.

Of course in Inception, the issue isn’t the gathering of information (even though that is the background of Cobb and his team) instead it is about the planting of a false idea. So is that really espionage and is it wrong? The law tells us that it is wrong to misrepresent facts in order to win a contract from a customer, but is it OK for companies to tell lies in order to disadvantage a competitor? The literature on business strategy abounds with ideas about deceiving your competitors about your intentions, your strengths and your weaknesses – mostly this borrows ideas from military strategy concerning feints and ploys. Military strategy has nothing much to say about ethics, and little about laws, so perhaps that explains why otherwise ethical companies end up happily playing pretend in order to disadvantage their competitors.

Ultimately even those companies we would hold up as the best examples of ethical corporations do tell lies in order to keep things secret and prevent competitors from getting wind of their intentions. Others go further and actively try to mislead competitors about those intentions in order to get the competition to show their hand or make a tactical error. But would companies ever go so far as to try to surreptitiously plant an idea in our minds in order to gain an advantage? Well, some of the more cynical among you might conclude that I’ve just rather neatly described the activity, and popular movie subject, otherwise known as ‘advertising’.'
Disclaimer: Please note that this site is a blog. Any views or opinions presented in the essays are to be understood as those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Cardiff sciSCREEN or any constituent part or connected body.

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