The Ethics of “Genre Bending” in BComm

Recently my husband showed me a letter he’d received from the fundraising staff of a university. It graciously thanked him for his recent promise of a contribution (a promise he’d made when contacted by phone), and it described the important goals that the money would help support. While it was a thank-you letter on the surface, the main effect of the message was to remind my husband that he still needed to send in the money.

He and I both felt that the letter showed brilliant decision making on the writer’s part. Casting the message as a thank you achieved the purpose of jogging his memory without nagging him, and it made him feel even better about his contribution.

This little event made me reflect on a question I sometimes think about when teaching bcomm: under what circumstances is it ethical to create a message that looks like one genre but is, in effect, another?

Let’s contrast the opening example I gave with a different one (also real). My son received a letter in a window envelope on which was written in scroll-looking type “Your Scholarship Information is Enclosed.” The sender, as indicated on the return address, was “Scholarship Information Center.” The contents turned out bo be a brochure about scholarship opportunities offered by the Army National Guard–or, from my perspective, a recruitment brochure.

In contrast to the first example, this one seemed to me to border on the unethical. How do we make–and, more importantly, help our students make–the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate use of what I call “genre bending”?

To tease out some criteria, let’s consider a strategy we sometimes see used and even sometimes recommend: to reconceive a “bad news” message as some other kind of message (e.g., a problem-solving message, a persausive message, or even a good news message).

I would suggest the following test questions:

  • Will the use of the potentially more effective form mislead the reader in any way?
  • Will the use of the potentially more effective form in any way hinder the reader’s ability to make a conscious, well-informed decision?
  • Will the use of the potentially more effective form feel like dissembling (i.e., feel like something of a trick) to the writer?
  • Is it a strain for the writer him/herself to perceive what he or she is writing about in the way that the more potentially effective form would encourage the reader to perceive it?

If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, I’d say that the writer’s ethics and sincerity are in question. In such cases, the more ethical act is probably to do one’s best with the genre that first presented itself as the logical one.

Examples of genre bending abound in our culture–from magazine sales letters that are formatted like invoices to newspaper articles that are actually press releases written by companies’ PR departments. Our students need to think carefully before engaging in this practice. Please share any strategies or thoughts you have about helping them do so.

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