Topic: Business & Commercial

Disney, Cell Phones, and Ethical Balancing

Ethics, which is the study of right and wrong, often requires a delicate balancing act. Part of the balancing might require an assessment of how a particular decision is likely to play out over time, and because looking into the future is inherently speculative, this is an aspect of the ethical decision-making process that is full of opportunities for bias to take control. The more doubtful the future, the easier it is to argue, or even convince yourself, that the likely outcome supports the decision you really wanted to make all along for reasons that have nothing to do with ethics.

Five years ago, the Disney Corporation announced that it would no longer license its characters for use on cell phones because there was evidence that cell phone radiation could be dangerous to users over time. “The well-being of our customers is our first priority,” the company’s press release said at the time.

Now, lo and behold! (Or rather, it being Disney, “Bibbity-bobbity-boo!“) Disney has announced that it will be marketing cell phones specially designed for kids aged 7-12.

What has changed? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. The research has not found the suspected cancer link to long-term cell phone use (Jack Bauer, on TV’s “24,” is still kicking for example, after four straight years with a forever-charged cell phone glued to his ear), but there is still disquieting evidence that cell phone radiation does something at a genetic or cellular level. This has been enough to cause some countries like Great Britain and soon perhaps Israel to take steps to discourage cell phone use by children. The plain fact is, we don’t know for sure whether cell phone use is safe or not.

At this point, the discussion becomes philosophical. When is a risk to others “too great,” and how much certainty do we need before we embark on a course with such risks? Must it be proven that a product is 100% safe before we sell it, or should the standard be that we must have quantifiable proof that it isn’t safe before we decide to put it on the market? The 20th Century was one long curving graph in the direction away from risk-taking and towards safety, and some would say the trend went too far. On the one hand, we have spared ourselves multiple Thalidomide disasters by testing products before they go into general circulation; on the other, we have spent huge amounts of money to eliminate imaginary dangers, like the supposed health threats created by power lines.

The ethical balance is between making life better, more pleasant or more convenient for thousands and perhaps millions of people and the likelihood that an unknown number of people might be hurt as a result. We know one future death isn’t enough to justify burying a product, and that a million deaths should consign the product to the scrap heap for good. Between one and a million, however, there is a lot of room for controversy.

Oh, did I neglect to mention money? That’s where the bias comes in, especially for a corporation, which is designed to make it. There’s no getting away from this: a company is going to accept more risk to the health of its customers the bigger the potential pay-off is, unless management makes a conscious decision to ignore the pro-profit bias that is part of the company’s reason for existence.

And this brings us back to Disney’s change of heart, for as we know, “A dream is a wish your heart makes.” – Cinderella. In 2000, Disney was riding a financial high; since then, its fortunes have declined precipitously. Might the need to bolster the bottom line have suddenly displaced 2000’s “well-being of our customers” as the company’s top priority?

In announcing the new cell phones, the spokeswoman for Walt Disney Internet Group said that “there certainly is a lot more information available today than back then. The FDA has consistently said scientific evidence does not show a danger to users of mobile phones and wireless communications devices, and that includes children.”

The evidence hasn’t shown there isn’t a danger either, of course. Then she said, “We’ll continue to stay abreast of all these issues.”

Possible translation: “We’ll be sure we’re poised to act the second there’s enough identified risk to make us sitting ducks for a law suit. By then we hope to have made enough money that we’ll be able to settle everything and still have enough left over to build Disneyland Baghdad.”

These are tough issues for any company, but The Scoreboard has to call this an ethical misstep by Disney, for two reasons. First, Disney should be more careful about the health of kids than any other U.S. company, because parents are going to trust Disney. Parents might legitimately be inclined to pass on buying cell phones for their children because of their own reservations about health issues, but if Disney is pushing them, they might well be persuaded otherwise: Disney would never take a risk with children’s welfare, even a tiny risk…at least, that’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe after decades of Uncle Walt and Jiminy Cricket and Mary Poppins. If there’s any legitimate question about the risks to children at all, this is one company that shouldn’t be calculating the angles too finely.

Does that mean that, given the state of research, it would be more ethical for, for instance, General Electric to launch a kid’s cell phone line than for Disney to do the same? Yes. Especially because of the second reason: this isn’t an essential product. I can see the possible uses; heck, I’ve given a seven year-old my own cell phone when I wanted to be able to contact him (he lost it, of course…and don’t think the Disney folks haven’t factored that into their equation). But for a company to be willing to promote a product that has even a smidgeon of a chance of hurting a child, that product had better solve a major problem or address a critical need. This product doesn’t. The major need this product addresses is Disney’s need to make money.

Disney is Disney because it has taken good care of our kids…and us, when we were kids…for a long, long time. Their ethical balance is out of whack with this decision. Disney should leave the kiddie cell phones to another company that we don’t trust so much.

Or perhaps, in this case, too much.

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