One of the reasons I launched The Ethics Scoreboard and later Ethics Alarms was that I felt the media did not recognize ethics stories and failed to cover them. Well, more ethics stories are finding their way into the news, but true to the warning “Be careful what you wish for,” the reports usually botch them, and get the ethics lessons wrong. The saga of Enzo and the “Barefoot Contessa” was a particularly nauseating example, but there have been others recently. For example…
A Colorado college senior made the news when she complained to the Better Business Bureau after the custom-written term paper she ordered at $23 per page didn’t arrive on time for her to submit it as her original work. Essaywritingcompany.com, a Twin Cities company that specializes in helping students cheat, not only didn’t complete the order, but refused to refund her money. The media’s analysis? The student was a hypocrite and a fool. A cheater reporting a cheating company for cheating her? What did she expect?
Wrong. She’s a dishonest student, but dishonest people should not be robbed, and still have a right to insist that obligations be kept by those she pays a fee to. Reporting a dishonest, unreliable company to the Better Business Bureau is a responsible act, and she shouldn’t be mocked for it.
Actually, most term paper companies, loathsome as they are, are professional and reliable; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t stay in business. And it is a legal business, though an unethical one. To say that you can’t trust a paper mill because it helps students cheat is like saying you can trust an auto repair shop because it pays its taxes.
There are several different issues here. Is she a dishonest student? Yes. Does she still have a citizen’s right not to have businesses take her money and refuse to give her what she bargained for? Absolutely. If she encounters a business that doesn’t live up to its obligations and takes her money, is she any less entitled to report it than anyone else? No. Does it matter what the business is? Again, no. Should she report the business, even if she hired it to help her cheat? Of course. Why should the dishonest company get away with theft? How would that be an ethical result?
Irony is not the same as justice.
But the media’s ethics analysis is just embarrassing regarding the supposed ethical outrage of a New York law firm’s ad agency using the image of an actual New York fireman in an ad trumpeting the law firm’s representation of 9/11 victims.
The ad shows a somber FDNY firefighter holding a photo of the wreckage of the World Trade Center under the headline “I was there.” The fake fireman, Robert Keiley, is now a real fireman but was working as a model when he posed for what he thought would be used for a standard issue fire-prevention ad. He posed in generic firefighter gear and sooty make-up, and gripped a helmet for the shot. Now Keiley is up in arms because the helmet in his hands was replaced via software with the Twin Towers picture, and the ad copy is patting the firm on the back for representing 9/11 victims.
“It’s an insult to the Fire Department. It’s an insult to all the families who lost people that day,” Keiley, a Brooklyn firefighter, is telling the eager news media and cable news networks. “It makes me look like I’m cashing in on 9/11, saying I was there even though I was never there, and that I’m sick and possibly suing, trying to get a chunk of money.”
So now he’s possibly suing the ad agency, trying to get a chunk of money.
The fault is 100% Keiley’s. He sold his image; the fact that he “thought” it was for one kind of ad when it was used for another is irrelevant. There was nothing in his contract limiting its use. He’s the fireman moonlighting as a model, playing a fireman. Did he ever inform the ad agency that he was going to be a real NY firefighter? No. Does the ad use his name? No. The ad has small print noting that it’s an actor portraying a fireman, and that is what anyone who has ever seen an ad would assume anyway.
So what, exactly, did the ad agency do that was unethical or wrong? Certainly not adding elements to the shot, or changing what the model fireman/secret real fireman was holding. They could make it look like he was holding the Hope Diamond or the head of Alfredo Garcia—the agency paid for that right, and Keiley pocketed cash in exchange for his right to object. Nor is the law firm doing anything unethical by running the ad.
Keiley is embarrassed; I understand. Joey was embarrassed on “Friends”, too, when he posed as a model for public health promotion posters, and ended up on a subway poster warning about the dangers of gonorrhea. He had sold his image. Joey was no Einstein, as fans of the show know, but he knew who was responsible for his plight.
He was. And Robert Keiley is responsible for his image appearing in a law firm ad.