« Death Dealers »: how professionals legitimate their practices in these controversial sectors.

Legal restrictions keep popping-up within controversial sectors considered as harmful to health such as tobacco and alcohol. In line with numerous regulations issued from the 1991 Evin law (i.e. prohibition for smoking in public areas or for any form of advertising related to and favoring, directly or indirectly, tobacco), since January 1st 2017 in France, only neutral cigarettes packaging can be sold. As well, the development of these regulations come with a public opinion’s will, and at a worldwide level, to reinforce the coercive characteristic of well-established policies. In 2017, after the release of the 10th report, the Quebec Ethical Council for alcoholic drinks industry blames once more the Quebec government for its permissiveness regarding the practical application of the law. In Belgium, several health related consulting room urge for an ambitious Alcohol Plan.


In this context, marketers’ role and work fundamentally collides with ethical issues since they have to market product which are socially contested and of which, the consumption lead to a deadly end. How, in this case, is it possible to handle this ethical dilemma? This is the question raised by Anne Sachet-Milliat, Loréa Baiada-Hireche, and Bénédicte Bourcier-Bequaert in their article published in Research and Applications in Marketing. The authors used a qualitative methodology based on semi-structured interviews of 17 marketers working in the sector of alcohol and tobacco. The authors come back to ethical issues encountered, in either case linked to marketing actions, considered as highly motivational, or to the general embarrassment feeling inherent to the sector. The authors identify three processes of neutralization helping marketing to work in these sensitive and difficult environments.

Three little agreements with Death.

Moral improvement of the marketing profession

The first technique of neutralization consist of establishing moral elements of their activity. Marketers working in these sectors dangerously minimize the risks linked to the marketed products and insist on rigorous internal procedures set up to frame their practices. They even go further by putting forward the corporate social responsibility policies of their company and the action taken to limit the overconsumption of alcohol and tobacco, in particular toward vulnerable population as Youngers.

Denial remains conventional!

Marketers also use denial by pointing out the coercive role of the State, who does not let any space to ethical violation, accusing that very one of restraining their activities by taxing more and more to increase their own wealth off social issues, or by using hypocrites manners. Marketers also cite the technique of victim denial: consumers who smoke or drink alcohol knows the consequence and fully assume it.

Interest for the profession

Finally, some marketers admittedly recognize ethical issues raised by their sectors but they call on economic arguments (interest for the profession, financial benefits, career) to justify their mission within controversial organizations.

More broadly speaking, this article invite us to an introspection regarding our own professional practices: are they really that ethical? What is hidden behind these fake arguments to always feel the need to justify them? Many questions that will occupy our minds these coming days, and who knows, it might give us a boost!

Sachet-Milliat, A., L. Baiadda-Hireche, L. & Bourcier-Bequaert, B. (2017), The clear conscience of the controversial sector marketer: A neutralization theory approach, Research and Applications in Marketing, 32(3), 38-48.

About Mind Your Sense

Je suis une consultante-chercheure indépendante en quête d'aventures intellectuelle, humaine, opérationnelle, organisationnelle, professionnelles, etc. Une vie faite de rencontres et d'expériences variées, riches et belles me permet aujourd'hui de proposer de vous faire entrer dans mon aventure, si vous le voulez ! A votre écoute si vous chercher un accompagnement de vos client(e)s, de vos étudiant(e)s, vos collaborateurs(trices) dans le cadre marketing, pédagogique, et de recherche.
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