It used to be, if you were unhappy with a product, you'd write a letter to the company and hope for a response back, maybe even a few coupons.
Today, there's a whole new way to express your dissatisfaction: It involves a camcorder and the Internet … and the potential to damage a business with a single upload.
A New Jersey woman, Jessie, was unhappy with the way a car dealer treated her mother while buying a new car. So, Jessie turned on her video camera and went into the dealership. While taping, Jessie returns the car keys to an unsuspecting salesman and cautions other customers against purchasing a vehicle.
"Don't buy a car here," she warns as she exits the dealership.
A few days later, she uploaded the video onto YouTube, labeling it "Beware of Brad Benson."
Brad Benson is a former offensive lineman for the New York Giants and the owner of the Monmouth Junction, N.J., car dealership. We met with him last week and watched Jessie's video together. When asked whether it upset him, Benson replied, "I would love to throw a bucket of ice on her. … She deserves it, and I don't mean Gatorade either."
Benson, like business owners across the country, has been forced to face the powerful impact angry consumers can have on the Web. Benson denies Jessie's allegations and insists his dealership did nothing wrong in its dealings with her mother. He acknowledges, however, that customers' rights to bring cameras into businesses and record their experience online, "As long as their facts are correct," he said.
Businesses may not like it, but they better get used to it as more and more consumers are uploading.
Michael Whitford posted a smash-and-bash video titled "Macbook Destruction" in which he demolishes his malfunctioning laptop.
A systems engineer from Chandler, Ariz., Whitford was distraught when his new Apple Macbook konked out only six months after he purchased it. When Apple refused to fix the computer for free under his extended warranty, Whitford took matters into his own hands.
With a camera and a sledgehammer, Whitford went to work, explaining his gripe to the audience before systematically reducing the Macbook to smithereens. He posted the video on the Web site consumerist.com and within four days Apple contacted him, apologizing for the problem and offering up a brand new $1,700 computer.
Meghann Marco, editor of consumerist.com, the site that earned "Macbook Destruction" the attention of Apple, feels validated when companies take note of consumer complaints.
"It makes me feel good when any of our customer complaints get resolved. I think it's really great to see that, and that's why I like my job."
But it's not only complaint videos; consumers are now part of a global community where they share information about products both good and bad on Web sites like expotv.com and consumerist.com. They get hundreds of posts a day from consumers all over the world. The videos run the gamut from simple vacuum cleaner demonstrations to minivan reviews.
Self-titled Internet consumer reporter Gerald Rubin, a vacuum-cleaner authority, focuses on the duds, but also makes a point of highlighting the winners. Marco asserts this community can be as beneficial to the businesses as the consumer — allowing them to put a positive spin on potential PR disasters.