When TV’s Ethics Matter, and When They Don’t

As one who has argued that certain TV commercials, notably the infamous “green shirt” Tide commercial, the Twix commercial  and Direct TV’s disturbing (but often funny) series showing football fans hurting rival team supporters, I know I’m asking for trouble by declaring, as I officially do here, that for compliance firm Global Ethics to criticize TV shows like “The Office” and “30 Rock” for supposed workplace ethics violations is absurd. But it is absurd. And criticizing the commercials in question is not.

Hear me out.

Sometimes ethical violations on TV do matter, particularly when a show represents them as realistic, common, standard practice, or worst of all, ethically acceptable. Dr. House is the most unethical physician in television history, but the show makes that crystal clear in every episode, and his success using unethical means makes the program one of the all-time great TV programs for starting ethical debates. The lawyers on “The Good Wife” also frequently violate ethical standards. I am sometimes troubled that the show isn’t always clear about what the ethical standards are or why certain conduct is wrong, but it is a legal drama about flawed human beings, and there is no longer any question that they are all capable, to varying degrees, of unethical conduct.

The Tide, Direct TV and Twix commercials that have been criticized here are different, I believe. In each of them, the commercial’s makers show themselves to be promoting or in sympathy with the wrongdoer, and expects us to be insensitive to harm done to an innocent party. Twix helps the cheating boyfriend to think up an effective lie to tell his girlfriend. Tide helps the mother deceive her daughter. Direct TV wants us to laugh at a waitress poisoning the drinks of innocent diners.

The TV workplace conduct criticized in the Global Ethics list is intentionally outrageous, and almost always perpetrated by characters who the audience knows are not exemplars of good workplace conduct. “The Office” is a comedy about a dysfunctional office populated by fools and disgruntled employees; “30 Rock” is a satire in which virtually every employee of the network would be sacked for cause in real life. Criticizing shows for outrageous conduct when the shows are about outrageous conduct is silly. Global Ethics also criticizes “NCIS’s” lead character (played by Mark Harmon) for a private conversation in which he describes areas in which he feels women are inferior to men. That’s the character of Gibbs; he has also killed people. “NCIS” isn’t endorsing or triviliazing sexism, any more that “The Office” endorses bad management, or “Glee” endorses bullying, or “Mad Men” trivializes infidelity. When inappropriate or unethical conduct is effectively employed as a component of a plot, dramatic exposition or comic situation, it shouldn’t be criticized unless the conduct is clearly being endorsed or misrepresented as correct, justifiable or ethical. For example, recent episodes of “CSI” and “Law and Order: SVU” that have endorsed or praised non-enforcement of immigration laws are irresponsible; TV programs should not encourage violation of U.S. laws.

I know why Global Ethics put out its list of workplace ethics-offending TV shows: so articles like this one would be written and it could get cheap publicity for its compliance programs. Good plan. But criticizing “The Office” for its workplace ethics is like attacking “F Troop” for poor military training, or “Scrubs” for incompetent hospital administration.

Confession: Yes, I do recognize that the distinction between the comedy shows’ depicted ethical misconduct and the Direct TV commercials’ comic assaults is gossamer thin, perhaps to the vanishing point. I am almost—not quite, but almost–ready to recant my position with regard to the unethical nature of those TV ads, though not regarding the ads for Tide (with ActiLift!) or Twix.

Please—somebody talk me out of it!


One thought on “When TV’s Ethics Matter, and When They Don’t

  1. Remember the commercials with the Free Eaters being the source of prejudice? I think that may be the level of people being mean to one another that is acceptable, and the DirectTV thing exceeds that.

    I don’t think either are bad, myself, but I can understand the objection.

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