Lessons from “Thank You for Smoking”

I wrote this for my negotiation class at school, but I thought if you’d seen the movie you could appreciate the lessons about negotiation (and on a broader scale, persuasion) I took away from it. By the way, my professor had our whole class over for dinner and to watch this movie. Baylor profs are awesome!

Now, for the lessons:

  • You don’t have to believe in the cause you represent.

Main character Nick Naylor faced a moral dilemma in his promotion of cigarettes, but he still did it. Whatever his reasons, he was able to successfully argue in favor of smoking. I don’t know if I’d be able to override my conscience in a similar manner, but this could come in handy in a situation where you had to negotiate for something you didn’t necessarily believe in (say, for a resistance point you thought was too high) but were ordered to by your boss.

  • “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”

Nick said this in the film to his son to show how he persuaded people that cigarettes weren’t all bad. This is based on the idea that human persuasion can override facts. And if a situation is ambiguous, without a clear right or wrong, this makes persuasion even more powerful.

  •  Bribery, saving face

The Marlboro man didn’t want to take the hush money, but after Naylor showed him how he could keep it and save face (by not telling the media), he took it. Naylor also showed the Marlboro man how if he told the media, he wouldn’t be able to keep the money and save face. Everybody would know he accepted a bribe and judge his actions as immoral. The payoff worked and Marlboro Man was happy.

Obviously I believe using the bribe was wrong, but the part about allowing him to save face is useful. Think about how people’s reputations will be affected by the outcomes of a negotiation. Negotiating on behalf of their employer is probably not as strong of a motivator as negotiating for themselves.

  •  Creating value for both sides – negotiating for cigarettes in movies

The brief negotiation that took place between Nick and the film exec created value for both sides. They worked on how they would incorporate cigarettes into the project, and how much Nick’s Big Tobacco company would pay for the product placement. It was a creative solution to get more of what both parties wanted: exposure for cigarettes and money for producing the movie.

  •   Intimidation and insults – You’re not a chicken, are you?

Nick’s son Joey succeeded in convincing his mom to let him join Nick on the business trip only after a couple of insults, suggesting “Is it possible that you’re taking the frustration of your failed marriage out on me?” This attack forced her to agree, because if she still didn’t let him go, that would be admitting that she was frustrated about her failed marriage.

This reminds me of someone trying to persuade another with “You’re not a chicken, are you? Just sign the deal!”

But I think a wise negotiator (or a mother) who knew what they wanted wouldn’t be swayed by an argument so simple and disrespectful. It was amusing in the film, but I know my mom wouldn’t have let me get away with a line like that. She’d have kept her position, and probably grounded me on top of that.

In conclusion, we should be like Nick Naylor... sort of.

“Thank You for Smoking” has a dry sense of humor and I laughed a lot. Only drawback is a fair amount of language, but if you can handle that I’d recommend it! It’s always great when you get to do school stuff based off of movies. But I think lessons about persuasion are everywhere, and you can learn from anything if you think critically about it. Happy movie watching/ learning!

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