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.
Keeping Them Honest
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.
"That's actually an opportunity for a company, too. If a video with a good argument starts to get really popular, a company can step in and say, 'You know what, we've taken this seriously … and we're going to step in and we're going to fix it, and look how great we are.' So it doesn't necessarily have to be, 'Oh, look at the mean consumer, like, beating up on the company.' "
Do Companies Get It?
"No, most companies screw it up," said Larry Weber, author of "Marketing to the Social Web" and an Internet consultant to Fortune 500 companies like IBM, Visa and General Motors.
Weber preaches an Internet involvement gospel: Companies have to give up trying to control everything that is said about them and surrender to the almighty Web.
"The first thing you've got to do is you have to understand who's talking about your company and your products and your competitors online. Get out and share and be a part of those conversations. Be transparent. … Don't try to hide."
If only Delta had that advice, before this video hit the Web earlier this summer. Robert McKee was one of several passengers on Delta flight 6499 that was stuck on the tarmac at JFK airport for seven hours. Delta did not feed the passengers throughout the entire ordeal and McKee kept his camera rolling, posting a minidocumentary online.
Eventually Delta provided the passengers with frequent flier miles and $200 rebates, but it was too little, too late, according to Weber.
"Delta should've come right out and said, 'We apologize. Here's free roundtrip tickets forever. We hope this never happens again.' They should've put a video out of the CEO apologizing right away."
That is exactly what toy magnate Mattel did earlier this month when it recalled more than 9 million toys made in China due to excessive lead paint and magnets. Instead of hiding from the negative press, CEO Bob Eckert posted a video statement on Mattel's Web site that was picked up by various Mommy blogs across the Web.
Be Seen, Be Heard
The Internet has enabled consumers to take over the driver's seat; compelling online videos help consumers get leverage over companies in ways letters and phone calls never could. That being said, commanding the attention of a Fortune 500 company is no small feat.
Consumer video sites have increased in popularity tenfold — not just any video will get noticed. While it may seem that anything goes on the Web, Marco advises that people on the Internet can be very critical, and ambitious consumers should take several things into consideration before pressing "record."
"I'd say the first thing you want to do is take a deep breath, and decide whether you really want to put yourself on the Internet," she said. "And if you decide that you do, then you're going to want to make sure that you have a really valid complaint — you're going to want to gather all your evidence together, as if the IRS were coming over."
Once you've exhausted the traditional methods of contacting companies and determined uploading is your only option, Marco says you must aim to get sympathy and support, and adding a little entertainment factor certainly doesn't hurt either.
"You've got to get everything together, get your video camera, and then just speak from the heart. Just say, you know, this is how I feel, this is what I've done, I've reached an impasse, and I'm appealing to everyone else. Help me out!"
So, with that advice, I set off to make my own video. I have some issues with my cell phone. In fact, it's sort of a universal problem: It's impossible to see the screen in the sunlight. It drives me crazy.
No, I wasn't crazy enough to smash my cell phone in the video. But others like Michael have done just that with their high-priced electronics! So, companies, be on your toes. As Jessie, the woman who recorded in the car dealership, warned, " Don't mess with me because I will record you!"