Case Study: Ethics of EA and Susan G. Komen
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Case Study: Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Electronic Arts
Electronic Arts, a video game company, and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a non-profit breast cancer awareness and research charity, are both under fire for ethical concerns. EA has misused employees and treated customers as cash cows while Komen tends to make decisions that show a desire for money to spend on research and awareness, regardless of how the money is raised. This paper emphasizes the need for a clear ethical stance that is consulted in every step of decision-making.
Regardless of the theory of ethics used, acting ethically is often among the priorities of any individual or group. Sometimes, what is ethical to one may be unethical to another, which leads to ethics violations. Often the ethical issues that arise stem from failure to fully determine ethical guidelines for oneself or one’s organization. Two groups will be examined here in light of ethical conduct. One, Electronic Arts, is a company whose primary objective is to make money for shareholders. The other, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising money for their chosen cause. Both have had their ethics called into question and have both ongoing and resolved issues. Both of these companies have made missteps that could have been avoided if they had clear ethical stances that were used in decision-making.
Electronic Arts (EA), a “global interactive entertainment software company,” was founded in 1982 and is responsible for many high-profile video game franchises like Madden NFL, The Sims, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect (About, n.d.). The company operates many smaller studios under the EA umbrella and has acquired many smaller studios like EA Sports and BioWare. The ethical issues faced by EA come from their business practices and their use of Digital Rights Management (DRM).
EA rose to the top of the video game industry using a very effective business model. They used licenses granting sole rights to many non-game franchises to create tie-in games like with the NFL or Harry Potter. This means that even though a rival company could make a football game, they could not use actual player names or teams, a major draw for football fans who play video games. Similarly, fans of a particular movie or movie series will be more likely to purchase a game using licensed material such as plot lines, characters, etc. A common complaint among gamers is that licensed games are generally less entertaining than an original IP (intellectual property). Movie tie-in games especially have been plagued by bugs and poor quality due to the rush of production, trying to release the game the same week as the movie’s release. The same issue is present in the yearly releases of sports games that change very little beyond the updated rosters. Madden NFL, for example, has a number of “legacy issues” that have been apparent for several years, but are not addressed each year in favor of slicker UI (user interface) and other cosmetic changes. In addition, the company has, in the past, been referred to as the “Evil Empire” due to their tendency to buy out smaller studios, essentially just to purchase their IPs, disregarding the acquired company and its employees (Chella, 2005). These business practices have often caused gamers to feel as though the company sees them as little more than cash cows who will blindly purchase any game simply due to the title, regardless of actual quality, essentially using their customers as a means to an end, rather than an end themselves. It may have worked in the past, but with gaming reaching mainstream popularity, more information is available about games prior to release, allowing more informed decisions and making EA lose quite a bit of popularity. Beyond just the consumers, EA has a history of using its employees in an unethical manner, paying salaries but demanding as much as a 100-hour work week, even outside of “crunch time,” prompting comparisons to sweatshops in descriptions of working conditions (Mieszkowski, 2004). Recently, EA has decided to shift their business practices to models more like their competitors, allowing acquired companies to maintain most of their autonomy and creative control and treating employees more fairly by providing an hourly wage. They have also started to focus more on new and original IPs, and even this year’s edition of Madden, Madden NFL 13 is acknowledging the legacy issues and trying to address them (Miller, 2012).
Piracy is always an issue for any sort of digital content, whether in gaming, music, or movies. EA has attempted to curb piracy using various Digital Rights Management (DRM) methods. Unfortunately, most of them have backfired. One method used was to prevent multiple installations of a game, at first limiting Spore, an ambitious creature creator simulation, to only three installations over the life of the game. Considering that many “hard-core” gamers have multiple computers and upgrade them constantly, three game installations may only last a short time. Gamers claimed that this essentially meant that they are renting the game for full price (Copyright, 2008). Even more insulting, Spore became the most pirated game in history, followed by EA’s The Sims, partially due to backlash against their “draconian” DRM policy (Rosenberg, 2008). EA’s next big release increased the number of activations to five, but consumers were still not satisfied. EA eventually went back to a traditional “CD-key” method of anti-piracy, but it was not to last. In fact, the DRM wars seemed to have faded into the past when issues related to Dragon Age: Origins started appearing. EA publicized their decision not to use the Spore-related SecuROM in Dragon Age: Origins, but their usage of online verification was less well known. In April of 2011, gamers with legitimate copies of the game were locked out of their offline, single-player campaigns due to server issues with the EA authentication servers (Ewalt, 2011). Meanwhile, pirates who were playing “cracked” versions that had the authentication stripped from their games were happily enjoying their illegal product (Ewalt, 2011). Essentially, EA’s anti-piracy DRM is actually encouraging piracy and punishing their consumers who purchase legal copies of the games. It is not uncommon to find gamers asking one another if it is ethical to purchase a copy of a game but download a “cracked” version to actually play so that the company still receives the monetary compensation for the product, but the issues related to DRM are bypassed. Once again, EA is using their customers as a means to an end, specifically making them put up with annoying factors in an attempt to bolster the bottom line. Unfortunately for EA, it seems to have backfired every time.
Susan G. Komen for the Cure is a non-profit organization that raises money for breast cancer awareness and research. The organization was founded by Nancy G. Brinker in 1982 as a promise to her sister, Suzy, who lost her life in a battle with breast cancer (Komen Home, n.d.). Originally “Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation,” the name and logo were changed in 2007 on their twenty-fifth anniversary (Brainerd, 2007). As the most well-known and popular breast cancer research charity, if not the most well-known non-profit organization in the country, Komen is responsible for turning October into the month of pink ribbons. Concerns about the over-use of pink and the unhealthiness of some of the products adorned with the pink ribbon have raised ethical concerns in a scandal termed “pinkwashing.” In addition to pinkwashing, a recent public relations nightmare involving Planned Parenthood has revealed questionable ethics on the part of the board members.
Pinkwashing is a term that was coined by Breast Cancer Action, a sort of watchdog group that operates the website ThinkBeforeYouPink.org, trying to stop consumers from blindly supporting any group with a pink ribbon (Think Before You Pink, n.d.). There are two aspects of pinkwashing. One is what many survivors feel is the commercialization of their disease (Begos, 2011). The pink ribbon is not copyrighted, so companies are legally allowed to decorate their goods with pink ribbons without making any sort of commitment to donate proceeds to Breast Cancer Awareness. In addition, many of those who do partner with Komen, or other cancer societies, have particular methods of donation which are not always clear to the customers. According to Think Before You Pink, some companies have a cap on total donations, meaning that purchases made after the cap is reached do not go towards breast cancer awareness, even though they have no intention of removing the pink labels (Think Before You Pink, n.d.). Another tactic was used by Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC donated a flat amount to Komen, and then sold special pink buckets of chicken (Anonymous, 2010). The amount donated would not change no matter how many buckets of chicken were purchased or whether those buckets were pink or not. This all basically amounts to free advertising for both Komen and the company involved.
The second form of pinkwashing comes from Komen partnering with products that are unhealthy, sometimes even causing cancer themselves. Back to the KFC scandal, their fried chicken can contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle, and obesity can be a factor in a number of diseases including cancer (Anonymous, 2010). Komen itself has marketed a perfume called “Promise Me,” referencing Brinker’s promise to sister Suzy, that contained chemicals that were known to cause cancer (Szabo, 2011). In addition, according to Brenda Coffee, a breast cancer survivor, “patients treated with chemotherapy often become hypersensitive to scents, and perfumes can give them headaches, dizzy spells or nausea, even years after treatment” (Szabo, 2011). When confronted with this information, Komen said they would reformulate the perfume, but did not remove existing products from the shelf (Think Before You Pink, n.d.). “Promise Me” in particular, and other examples in general, show a growing insensitivity to the very victims Komen attempts to help, using a sort of “ends justify the means” method of fund-raising. Apparently the method of raising the money makes little difference as long as research is done, awareness is spread, and Nancy Brinker and friends are paid.
Another example of Komen not determining their ethical stance prior to policy making came early this year. A conservative politician opened an investigation into Planned Parenthood. A conservative board member urged Komen to stop grants that funded Planned Parenthood, citing a previously unknown policy not to fund projects under investigation. Whether this policy was enacted for Planned Parenthood or it had always been a mindset is unclear. Liberals across the nation reacted with fury to the news that Komen was pulling funding for the “sexual and reproductive health care provider and advocate,” which is also the country’s leading provider of abortions (About us, n.d.). Donations poured into both organizations, pro-life groups celebrating Komen and pro-choice groups making up for lost funds by donating directly to Planned Parenthood (Feldmann, 2012). With the backlash caused by the defunding of Planned Parenthood, Komen issued a statement retracting its previous decision, pledging to continue the grants, which was accompanied by resignations of some of the Komen decision makers, including the conservative who first suggested the defunding (Feldmann, 2012). With this action, Komen simply looks inept, or willing to reverse their ethical stance when convenient, neither of which are favorable. The move to continue the Planned Parenthood grants alienated pro-life donators, some of which were unaware of the ties to Planned Parenthood before the dispute, and did little to convince the pro-choice donators to return (Hopfensperger, 2012). This was evident in May when Komen’s annual Race for the Cure registration was down over 5,000 runners from last year (Hopfensperger, 2012). Some have accused that board members were letting personal politics color their judgment; others have accused the company of straying too far from their stated mission. Some wonder why Komen funds Planned Parenthood at all, considering that they do not provide mammograms, and only help recommend clinics that do (McCormack, 2011).
Alternatives and Solutions.
One of the most important actions a group can take, especially when in a field that can be littered with ethical problems, is to have a clear understanding of the group’s ethical stance. Typically, this can be made simple by taking a utilitarian or deontological approach to issues. Sometimes, however, a more in-depth review must take place.
EA’s former business model was not in line with either school of ethical thought. Initially, it was providing shareholders a great profit as it rose through the ranks to become a top three company in the industry, but as the product began to suffer and complaints from employees started to surface, stocks dropped. In all, the plan did not suit any of the parties involved. With a firm ethical standpoint, EA could have avoided the “sweat-shop” and “monopoly” claims and instead took up a position more in line with their current business model. Among the changes were a fairer approach to employee pay, more creative control for acquired studios, and a new approach toward franchises, attempting to fix legacy issues rather than just pumping out the same product with new names.
Ethical treatment of one’s customers is also an issue that can be determined well ahead of issues such as EA’s DRM scandals. To purposefully annoy your customers to attempt to stop pirates in a manner that only hurts legal consumers is madness. EA should realize that DRM only encourages piracy and stop punishing their customers.
Not all pinkwashing is Komen’s fault, though one could argue that Komen is what made the pink ribbon so “fashionable,” and some blame can be laid at the feet of companies looking to unethically boost sales. However, the majority of the trend is indeed due to Komen’s tireless efforts to get the pink out. Some survivors are tired of the cheer associated with “celebrating pink” that simply glosses over the pain and loss associated with a terrible disease (Begos, 2011). The pervasiveness of the pink ribbon makes one wonder why Komen still needs to spend so much of its budget on “awareness” and not on “research.” Companies should be honest with their customers about the donations that are made and to which organization they will be made.
Komen seems to have made one ethical standpoint clear: money is money no matter where it comes from, and money is needed to combat cancer. They show little, if any, worry about endorsing an unhealthy product, focusing more on how they will use the money to support survivors and patients, and less on how the money was earned. Partnering with companies like KFC and Komen’s own “Promise Me” perfume proved this.
Finally, had Komen’s ethical stance been clear, there may not have been an issue regarding Planned Parenthood. Komen should have known if it was going to be influenced by politics and which “side” they would be on if it were. When funding such a controversial organization as Planned Parenthood, it is amazing that they were not better prepared for this eventuality. In addition, by reversing their decision, it made it look as though Komen’s ethics were a matter of convenience, not right and wrong.
Each company must have a clear vision of what their ethical stance is. It should be reviewed often and practices should be held against it to determine if the company is on the right course. EA must continue to treat employees fairly and attempt to create products that gamers will continue to purchase. By creating good products and actually improving existing franchises, they will not only be benefitting gamers, but also their shareholders as stocks improve. EA must also deal with piracy in another manner. This author suggests that DRM is a failure, piracy will always happen, and attempting to end piracy will only punish legal consumers. Remove DRM and ship your games. If the product is worth the price tag, even pirates will purchase a copy, understanding that sales are what drive more content into production.
Komen must make every decision with breast cancer patients and survivors at the forefront of their minds. While the choice between more money for research and only appropriate product deals is a difficult one, this author believes that awareness is no longer an issue. Komen, especially after the most recent issue, needs to be dedicated to nothing but the best interest of their constituency. They should only partner with companies that are appropriate and have clear donation plans that are easily available to consumers. They must also stick by their decisions. If a decision needs to be revoked, it was not properly considered prior to implementation. We all have the right to learn from our mistakes, but such an easy reversal does not look good for anyone.
In short, know your ethical stance and follow it with every decision.
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