Can we Teach Sales and Marketing Professionals about Business Ethics using Entertainment Education Programs?

Between 1991 and 2012, US pharmaceutical company settlements both civil and criminal exceeded $30 billion dollars (Rodwin, 2015).  The question asked by Rodwin (2015) and others (Gagnon, 2013; Outterson, 2012) is whether financial fines have had an effect stemming illegal and unethical business management practices in the pharmaceutical industry. Most of these cases involved unethical sales and marketing practices where profits appear to have been placed ahead of patient safety and a physician's right to make unbiased clinical decisions for their patients. While it is clear that pharmaceutical research has led to thousands of products that have both improved and extended hundreds of thousands of lives when net profits are the key performance indicator, companies are at risk for making unethical business decisions to achieve financial goals (Tang et. al, 2018). While pharmaceutical companies are not charitable organizations, they have an obligation to educate their employees on how to balance financial objectives with the goal of improving healthcare outcomes through clinical research and responsible commercialization of their approved products. 

What problem was addressed in this study?

The general problem was that while management at some companies spend an average of $200,000 annually on compliance and ethics training (Kann, 2013), the effectiveness of these programs to raise employee awareness of compliance risks, and improve ethical decision-making is in question (Treviño, Nieuwenboer, and Kish-Gepharts, 2011; Warren, Gaspar, & Laufer, 2014).  The more specific problem was that sales and marketing managers consistently struggle to identify compliance risks, effectively judge the ethical nature of sales and marketing strategies, and demonstrate behavioral intentions to speak-up.  The target audience for this study included pharmaceutical sales managers and employees from a large pharmaceutical company located in the US-North East.

What was the purpose of this study?

The purpose of this quantitative experimental study was to compare the effectiveness of two types of entertainment-education (film vs image-text eLearning) on ethical decision-making and behavioral intentions to speak-up in the pharmaceutical sales professions. Researchers and practitioners may use findings from this study to determine whether a high-cost professionally developed entertainment-education video is significantly more effective than an e-Learning course using static images and on-screen text to influence ethical issue awareness, ethical judgments, and behavioral intentions to speak-up. Note that I did not evaluate the impact of the types of images used in the eLearning course. The images were screen captures from the film version that showed the facial expressions of the actors in the film. These facial expressions may have influenced the results of the findings. 

Can we teach ethics and compliance to pharmaceutical salespeople using entertainment-education?

The effects of the entertainment-education interventions had the strongest effect on speak-up intentions, compared to the effects on ethical issue awareness and ethical judgment.  After watching the video or reading the story of Kim, 43% changed their behavioral intentions to speak up in a positive direction for the scenario with implications for patient safety.  Given the significant effect observed in this study of the entertainment-education narrative on behavioral intentions to speak up, compliance training managers may choose to use an entertainment-education training intervention to address low behavioral intentions to speak up.


Gagnon, M. (2013). Corruption of pharmaceutical markets: Addressing the misalignment of financial incentives and public health. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 41(3), 571-580. doi:10.1111/jlme.12066

Kann, R. (2013). Compliance and ethics training benchmarking reports (Rep. No. CELC7083113SYN) (A. K. McDougall, Ed.). District of Columbia, MD: Corporate Executive Board.

Outterson, K. (2012). Punishing health care fraud — is the GSK settlement sufficient? New England Journal of Medicine, 367(12), 1082-1085. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1209249

Rodwin, M.A. (2015). Do we need stronger sanctions to ensure legal compliance with pharmaceutical firms? Food and Drug Law Journal, 70, 435-452

Tang et. al, (2018). Monetary Intelligence and Behavioral Economics: The Enron Effect—Love of Money, Corporate Ethical Values, Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), and Dishonesty Across 31 Geopolitical Entities. Journl of Business Ethics Education, 148, 919–937

Treviño, L. K., Nieuwenboer, N. A., & Kish-Gephart, J. J. (2014). (Un)Ethical behavior in organizations. Annual Review of Psychology, 65(1), 130708143622004. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143745

Warren, D. E., Gaspar, J. P., & Laufer, W. S. (2014). Is formal ethics training merely cosmetic? A study of ethics training and ethical organizational culture. Business Ethics Quarterly, 24(1), 85-117. doi:10.5840/beq2014233