THE interview began innocently enough. The young lady from the business research company displayed a list of names of international corporations, and asked how many of them I recognised. A week earlier I had received a letter from the research company telling me about a study they were doing on the public image of international corporations in Hong Kong. I was requested to help by answering some questions in an interview. The purpose of the study was not explained in the letter, but it said they were enlisting the help of political parties, legislators and opinion leaders in the territory. A couple of telephone calls from the company followed the letter, and the interview was arranged. I examined the list presented to me, and recognised about half of the names as associated with some popular brands of detergents, shampoos, chocolates and cigarettes. I was embarrassed by my rather below-average knowledge of the big names, and was relieved when my interviewer showed no sign of disapproval and patiently informed me of the businesses connected with each of the corporations unfamiliar to me. Next I was asked to comment on the importance of a number of factors affecting the public image of large corporations. The factors mentioned included good business ethics, high-quality products, efficient management, creating jobs for local workers, making charity donations and sponsoring cultural activities. Following that the lady asked me to assess one by one the performance of the international corporations in each of these areas. I said I knew too little about the companies to be able to make any accurate appraisal. 'Don't worry about accuracy,' my inquirer said encouragingly. 'It's all very subjective, and there aren't really right or wrong answers. We just want you to tell us your gut feeling. That's most important to us.' I proceeded with the task slowly and with difficulty, trying to make the most of the faintest impressions I had of the company names. I knew tobacco companies sponsored a lot of sport activities, but apart from that my knowledge of the performance of the corporations was practically nil. I was abashed as I watched my inquirer earnestly put down the assessments I made, mostly based on wild guesses. Then I began to smell a rat. The inquirer casually suggested that we should pick a few of the corporations for further analysis, and chose three names, all of which happened to be tobacco companies. For each of the companies I was asked whether I thought its public image was good, and how I thought it could be improved. The last part of the interview was stripped of all disguise. The questions had nothing to do with the topic of study: do you think government should ban cigarette ads in newspapers? And on open walls? Do you agree that cigarette ads will encourage non-smokers to start smoking? Will the ads corrupt the minds of young people? What do you think will happen to our economy if the tobacco industry collapses? How will sports and cultural activities be affected if they are no longer sponsored by tobacco companies? What would you suggest tobacco companies should do in order to gain government support? And to gain public support? I was more certain of my position on these questions, and gave definite answers to them. I realised these were the real questions they wanted to ask. The earlier part of the interview was a sham. IT was not a genuine survey on corporate image. The tobacconists were paying for it, as part of their campaign against new legislation that would impose further restrictions on smoking and cigarette advertisements. That was why they had chosen to approach political parties and legislators. I did not want the interviewer to go away happy with herself, thinking she had had me fooled. As a parting remark I told her that telling lies about the purpose of their survey would damage the credibility and corporate image of her research company. A little taken aback, the lady asked in a plaintive voice: 'Would you have agreed to be interviewed if we had told you our true intentions?' So much for business ethics. I believe when the right moment comes they will publish their findings, all in favour of the unnamed bosses that are funding the survey.