Business Ethics in the Movies

Thinking outside the box office.
by Carolyn Johnson, Business Librarian
Arizona State University West

Development of personal ethics versus learning business ethics.
Goals and assessment of Business Ethics courses.
Portrayal of business and workers in the movies.
Statistics on movie/TV viewing among teens.
AACSB on Business Ethics courses.
Using movies and literature to learn about business ethics.
Using case studies to learn about business ethics.
Portrayal of business and workers on TV.
The magnitude of business ethics.
Attributes of film for teaching and learning.
Students sharing their learning experience.
Corporate crime in the '90s and beyond.
Alternatives to movie book reports.


12.  Personal ethics ≠ business ethics.

Development of personal ethics.  Huntemann and Morgan describe the influence of media on the development of personal identity.  Nonis and Swift outline the shortcomings of studies that look at one variable at a time and neglect a composite, or profile, of one's ethical values.  Perry's study describes the transformations in ethical development that occur during late adolescence.

Huntemann, N. & Morgan, M. (2002). Mass media and identity development. In D.G. Singer and J.L. Singer (Eds.), Handbook of children and the media. (pp.309-322). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Nonis, S. & Swift, C.O.  (2001).  Personal value profiles and ethical business decisions.  Journal of Education for Business 76(5), 251-256.

Perry, W.G. (1999). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: a scheme. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Learning business ethics.  Here are three good articles that discuss the considerations in developing business ethics courses.

Bishop, T.R. (1992). Integrating business ethics into an undergraduate curriculum. Journal of Business Ethics 11(4), 291-299.

Gilbert, J.T. (1992). Teaching business ethics: what, why, who, where, and when. Journal of Education for Business 68(1), 5-8.

Murphy, P.R. & Boatright, J.R. (1994). Assessing the effectiveness of instruction in business ethics: a longitudinal analysis. Journal of Education for Business 69(6), 326-332.

11.  Everything you need to know about business ethics you can learn from watching The Godfather.

These two excerpts summarize the goals and assessment of Business Ethics classes.

Five goals for courses in ethics:
  1. Stimulate the moral imagination.
  2. Recognize ethical issues.
  3. Elicit a sense of moral obligation.
  4. Develop analytical skills.
  5. Tolerate disagreement and ambiguity.

1980 Hastings Center study "Ethics Teaching in Higher Education," reviewed in  Pameental, G.L. (1989). The course in business ethics: can it work?  Journal of Business Ethics 8, 547-551.


At any time, the focus of measurement of the learning of ethics should be on the ability of students to recognize ethical issues and to logically incorporate those issues into their analytical processes and decisions. At no point should measurement of ethics learning take the form of assessing whether students chose the "right" solution.

Gilbert, J.T. (1992). Teaching business ethics: what, why, who, where, and when. Journal of Education for Business 68(1), 5-8.

10.  It's not just the accountants that get companies into BIG trouble.

Portrayal of business and workers in the movies.  Most controversy surrounds the chicken or egg question, "Do evil businessmen in the media reflect what people believe, or do people perceive businessmen as evil because that's what they learn from the media?"  The question of how business is portrayed in the media is not central to learning about business ethics from movies.  It just means that we have more unethical portrayals to analyze and discuss.  However, in the interest of providing a context for business ethics in the movies, and how that relates to the "real world", the following sources are useful.

Bodnar, J. (2003).  Blue-collar Hollywood: liberalism, democracy, and working people in American film.  Balitmore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Galerstein, C.L. (1989).  Working women on the Hollywood screen: a filmography.  New York: Garland Publishing.

Corliss. R. (1987, December 14).  A season of flash and greed; two Christmas movies tweak an '80s devil.  Time 130(24), 82-83.

Cullen, S. (1999). From the box office to your office: the top 10 movies about life in the office.  OfficeSystems99 16(1), 14-18.

Donohoe, T. J. (1997).  Businessmen are Hollywood's favorite villains.  Human Events 53(44), 19.

Feldman, S. (1992).  At the movies: business gets a bad rap.  Management Review 81(11), 49+

Fumento, M.  (1992).  Pinstripes and black hats; businessmen are Hollywood's favorite bad guys - it's the safest way to make a buck.  National Review 44(12), NRW1-3.

Gillespie, N. (2000).  Boiler Room boilerplate. Reason 32(1), 14.

Maslin, J. (1987, April 12). Business on the big screen.  New York Times, Section 2, 17 (1).

Medved, M. (1992). Hollywood vs. America: popular culture and the war on traditional values.  New York: HarperCollins.

Seligman, D. (1993). Return of the evil businessman. Fortune 127(11), 174-175.

Taylor, D. (1993).  That's show business. Forbes 151(6), S108-117.

9.  You're going to watch movies anyway, so you might as well enjoy some critical thinking with your popcorn.

Statistics on movie/TV viewing among teens.  Here is data to back the conventional wisdom that teens are big consumers of movies and TV.

" Young adults are the movie industry's best customers."

Dortch, S. (1996). Going to the movies. American Demograpics 18(12), p.4.

Demographic characteristics of frequent movie-goers.  (1984).  Research Report Series.  New York: Newspaper Advertising Bureau.  Accessed from SRI 1984 A8600-8.13.

Dortch, S. (1996). Going to the movies. American Demograpics 18(12), 4-8.

Multimedia audiences - summary 2000. Use of selected media, by age, ex, race, educational attainment, employment status, and household income. (2002). Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 2001, Table 1127, p. 705.

Percentage distribution of 4th graders, by time spent on homework and television viewing each day: 1992 to 2000. (2002). Digest of Educational Statistics, 2001, Table 118, p.139.

Selected recreational activities: 1975-1999. (2002). Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 2001, Table 1244, p.761.

Technology in the American household. (1994).  Washington, DC: Times-Mirror Center for the People & the Press.  Accessed from SRI 1992 C8915-16.

8.  "Mr. Corleone never asks a second favor once he's refused the first, understood?"

AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) on Business Ethics Courses.  These articles explain the history and recent developments of AACSB's accrediting rules on business ethics courses.

Curry, T. (2002). Ethics in business and education. AACSB International eNewsline. Retrieved July 3, 2003, from

Kelly, M. (n.d.) It's a heckuva time to be dropping business ethics courses. Business Ethics: Corporate Social Responsibility Report. Retrieved July 3, 2003, from

7.  You can watch 4 or 5 movies in the time it takes to read a book on business ethics--if you actually read the book.

Using movies to learn about business ethics.  Movies compress complex stories into rich, visually intense images and sound that engage both visual and auditory learners.

Berger, J. & Pratt, C.B. (1998). Teaching business-communication ethics with controversial films.  Journal of Business Ethics 17(16), 1817-1823.

Champoux, J. E. (1999). Film as a teaching resource. Journal of Management Inquiry 8, 206-217.

Giacalone, R.A. & Jurkiewicz, C.L. (2000).  Lights, camera, action: teaching ethical decision making through the cinematic experience.  Teaching Business Ethics 5, 79-87.

Hosmer, L.T. & Steneck, N. H.  (1989). Teaching business ethics: the use of films and videodata.  Journal of Business Ethics 8(12), 929-937.

Hunt, C.S. (2001). Must see TV: the timelessness of television as a teaching tool.  Journal of Management Education 25(6), 631-647.

Using literature to learn about business ethics.  These articles support the use of literature to teach business ethics.  The development of plot and characters (beyond the case study treatment) make ethical dilemmas in business more compelling for students.

Brawer, R. A. (1998). Fictions of business: insights on management from great literature.  New York: John Wiley.

Kennedy, E.J. & Lawton, L. (1992). Business ethics in fiction. Journal of Business Ethics 11(3), 187-195.

McAdams, T. (1993). The Great Gatsby as a business ethics inquiry. Journal of Business Ethics 12(8), 653-660.

Williams, O. F. (Ed.). (1997). The Moral imagination; how literature and films can stimulate ethical reflection in the business world.  Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

6.  Case studies are for wimps.

Using case studies to learn about business ethics.  These ideas support the use of case studies to teach business ethics.  They advocate a practical approach to understanding ethical situations rather than "indoctrination of abstract principles."

Buchholz, R.A. & Rosenthal, S.B. (2001). A philosophical framework for case studies. Journal of Business Ethics 29(1/2), 25-31.

Mathison, D. L. (1988). Business ethics cases and decision models: a call for relevancy in the classroom. Journal of Business Ethics 7(10), 777-782.

5.  Work is like a box of chocolates...

Portrayal of business on TV.  There is a lot of research to savor about the portrayal of business and workers on television, including an exhaustive 30-year study (the Lichter, Lichter, & Rothman book is a gold mine).  These studies describe the trends for TV and movies alike; some have good chronologies.

Eisner, M.O.  (1987, August 15). The business people and television: a distorted view. Vital Speeches 53, 665-667.

Graham, T. (1999). TV's 'evil' businessmen. World and I 14(9), 104.

Gunther, M. (1997). Business is TV's newest bad guy: villains of prime time. Fortune 136(1), 32.

Lichter, S.R., Lichter, L.S., & Rothman, S. (1994). Prime Time: how TV portrays American culture.  Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.

London, H.  (1987, August 23).  What TV drama is teaching our children.  New York Times, Section 2, p.23(1).

Signorelli, N. (1993). Television and adolescents' perceptions about work.  Youth and Society 24(3), 314-341.

Signorelli, N. & Kahlenberg, S. (2001). Televison's world of work in the nineties.  Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 45(1), 4-22.

Stein, B. (2002). Ben Stein's Diary. American Spectator 35(3), 76.

Thomas, S. & LeShay S.V. (1992). Bad business? A reexamination of television's portrayal of businesspersons.  Journal of Communication 42(1), 95-105.

4.  You don't have to watch Titanic to see the ship go down.

These excerpts capture the pervasiveness of concern about (un)ethical business issues.

" Is the typical CEO more honest and ethical than the average person?"
More honest and ethical 14%
Less honest and ethical 71%
No difference 7%

-- From a Time/CNN telephone poll of 1.003 adult Americans, July 10-11, 2002.  Reported in Corporate crime. (2002, October 11). CQ Resarcher 12(35), p.825.

" ...there appeared to be consensus that if you can get away with certain actions - as television heroes regularly do - that translate into wealth, status and power, then the stigma of immorality is mitigated by rewards.  Do the ends justify the means? Yes, say writers for television programs, and yes, say students who watch television regularly."

 --Herbert London, NYU Dean, after interviewing NYC high school students on  the effect of television on their social attitudesi.  London, H. (1987, August 23). What TV drama is teaching our children.  New York Times, Section 2, p.23(1).

Are transnationals bigger than countries?

Twenty-nine of the world's 100 largest economic entities are transnational corporations (TNCs), according to a new UNCTAD list that ranks both countries and TNCs on the basis of value added... Exxon is the biggest... It ranks 45th on the new list, making it comparable in economic size to the economies of Chile or Pakistan. Nigeria comes in just between DaimlerChrysler and General Electric, while Philip Morris is on a par with Tunisia, Slovakia and Guatemala.

TAD/INF/PR47 12 Aug 2002. 
Retrieved on March 21, 2003, from

3.  Full frontal arguments.

These two excerpts highlight some of the attributes of film that make it outstanding as a teaching and learning medium.  Read the articles!

" A prominent example of an editing technique that gives film a unique quality is the widely used shot/reverse shot to show social interaction between two or more parties (Bordwel, 1996).  The scenes switch from a view of one party to a view of the other party in the conversation.    Directors use this technique to create an ubiquitous observer who is present at all moments of the conversation and can see the nonverbal cues of those in the conversation.  The result is unlike real world experiences because an observer to a conversation is unlikely to face one party and move quickly to face the other (Reisz & Millar, 1968)."

Champoux, J. E. (1999). Film as a teaching resource. Journal of Management Inquiry 8, 206-217.

" We are in the middle of moving from the linear, sequential thought processes of print to the instantaneous and simultaneous multiform ways of seeing and experiencing that mark the electronic age."

Jewison, N.F. (1984). The power of film and its influence. The Empire Club of Canada Speeches 1983-1984. Toronto, Canada: The Empire Club Foundation, 331-345.  Retrieved on June 19, 2003, from 

2. Vito Corleone: "Do you spend time with your family? Good. Because a man that doesn't spend time with his family, can never be a real man."

A learning experience takes on exponential proportions when students also have responsibility for teaching others what they have learned.

The Movie Literacy Project is a joint partnership of Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics and the North Carolina School of Filmmaking.

" The goal of the Movie Literacy Project is to engage middle school teachers and students in examining the impact of film and expanding student understanding of this dominant media form in their lives, seen both on the big screen and at home on television.  Students will develop assessment skills, such as the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, the impact of effects-driven films and their heightened reality, the determination of what is "real" and what is invented.  The project will also help students construct a mindset that can evaluate film images and put those that are disturbing or unsettling into an understandable whole.

With guidance... a team of Duke undergraduates is developing a middle school curriculum and study guide for movie literacy incorporating themes of character and ethics."

Retrieved on July 3, 2003 from http://kenan.ethics.

" Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers.  They develop skills in organizing and planning learning activities, working collaboratively with others, giving and receiving feedback and evaluating their own learning.  Peer learning is becoming an increasingly important part of many courses, and it is being used in a variety of contexts and disciplines in many countries."

Boud, D. (2001). Introduction: making the move to peer learning.  In Boud, D. Cohen, R., & Sampson, J. (Eds.). (2001). Peer learning in higher education, p.3. London:  Kogan Page. 

People learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process.  Edgar Dales' "Cone of Experience" indicates that people generally remember...

10% of what they read.
20% of what they hear.
30% of what they see.
50% of what they see and hear.
70% of what they say or write.
90% of what they say as they do a thing. 

Dale, E. (1969). Audiovisual methods in teaching. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

1.  Watch yourself.  You could end up in the next sequel.

Corporate crime in the 90s and beyond.  Selected publications.

Corporate crime. (2002, October 11). CQ Resarcher 12(35), 817-840.

Mokhiber, R. (n.d.).  Top 100 corporate criminals of the decade.  Corporate Crime Reporter.  Retrieved on May 14, 2003 from

Huffington, A.S.  (2003).  Pigs at the trough.  New York: Crown Publishers.

Wanted: Creative types for low-budget productions.

Products that communicate critical thinking and analysis of business ethics in the movies.  Try these as alternatives to movie "book reports":

Last modified July 28, 2003
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