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From... Angry consumers slam companies on the Web

July 22, 1998
Web posted at: 11:15 AM EDT

by Leslie Goff

(IDG) -- Drew Faber was irked. When he signed up at a Bally Total Fitness health club, he had negotiated to upgrade his plan so he could use other clubs in the chain operated by Los Angeles-based Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp. when he traveled. But when he cut a check for the upgrade, just before a trip to Chicago, the club simply tacked a few extra months on to his membership. Bally told him his plan didn't qualify him to use its Chicago club.

Faber, a freelance photographer, already maintained two World Wide Web sites to promote his work. He wasted no time launching a third - one that promoted his complaints about the chain. He called it Bally's Total Fitness Sucks. He topped the page with the health club's logo, across which he scrawled the word "sucks."

"I thought a Web site would be the easiest way to get a response from Bally's," Faber says. "If I just wrote letters, they would just ignore them, but it wouldn't be easy to ignore the Web site."

In vast numbers, consumers are taking their grievances about companies, products and services to the Web, and they aren't being coy about it. GTE Sucks; the I Hate McDonald's Page; ToysRUs Sucks; I Hate Bill Gates!!! I Hate Microsoft!!! I Hate Windows!!!; The Official Packard Bell Hate Page; and Why America Online Sucks are just a few of the rancorous sites started by unhappy consumers.

In fact, a recent Yahoo search for the words "hate" and "sucks" yielded 628 hits.

Sites that track consumer opinions make up almost a third of the hits - and those are just the ones registered with Yahoo. Public relations consultants estimate the true number of such rogue sites could be close to 1,000.

Consumer hate sites include well-intentioned grassroots efforts, organized activist sites run by ad hoc watchdog groups, benign first-person diatribes and truly venomous, malicious attacks.

Nike, Inc. knows the spectrum. The company is targeted by at least eight different sites, which mainly criticize the Beaverton, Ore., company for alleged labor abuses in Southeast Asia. They run the gamut, from The Official Internet AntiNike Site, a first-person essay by Steven Myers, a 40-year-old union laborer in southwest Oregon, to Just Don't Do It: Nike vs. the University of Michigan, an activist site operated by a campus group.

Myers' site features a cartoon of a boy urinating on the famous Nike "swoosh," which the site calls a "swooshtika," and makes unsupported claims about the company's business practices.

Myers defends his site's content by saying he links to other sites that document his claims, such as the Just Don't Do It site, which includes sources, including reports from respected news organizations, for its allegations.

Nike hasn't contacted any of the sites, says Scott Reames, Nike's communications manager, but he and members of his staff occasionally monitor their content.

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Over the edge

"Some of them are so completely over the edge, in our opinion, that it seems pointless to even try to counterpoint what they say," Reames says. "Some are actually very well thought out and have offered us a different point of view."

The quandary for targeted companies is figuring out how far they can go to protect their image without fueling the fire already raging at the sites.

"Avoid 'testosterosis,' or the urge to hit someone in the face because they are doing something you don't like," says Jim Lukaszewski, president of The Lukaszewski Group in White Plains, N.Y., which advises Fortune 100 companies on how to deal with public relations crises. "It's a free country, and the Web is completely unregulated. Don't get angry and think about doing foolish things."

But because consumer hate sites upset corporate employees and boards of directors alike, there's a natural tendency to get lawyers involved. That can be a mistake.

Those who operate hate sites adore posting cease-and-desist letters they receive from corporate attorneys. Such letters also validate their fight for the cause, whatever they perceive that to be, and they can use them to cast yet another negative spotlight on the company. They revel in the attention.

A company has legal recourse only when the unauthorized use of its trademarks, brand names or other intellectual property is apt to be confusing to the public.

And consumers who maintain rogue Web sites argue that no reasonable person would be confused that Bally Sucks is maintained or supported by Bally Total Fitness.

So just how much recourse does a company actually have on the Web, where everyone has the equivalent of a Gutenberg press?

"There's a lack of laws or precedent on the 'net, and we are investigating what we can do because there's a lot of stuff out there that we are displeased about," says Bryan Holmberg, a public relations specialist at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. in Bentonville, Ark. "Due to newness of the Web and these sites, each has to be investigated on a case-by-case basis to see if it crosses the line."

Hands tied

So the retail chain has little room to maneuver against the Wal-Mart Sucks Web site, even though the home page features a photograph of a Wal-Mart outlet altered to look like "Anal-Mart." "That falls under freedom of expression, unfortunately, partly because a consumer couldn't be confused that Wal-Mart was doing it," Holmberg says.

Wal-Mart Sucks is maintained by Richard Hatch, an unemployed toy collector in Bangor, Maine, who says he launched his site after he was banned from the Wal-Mart store there for allegedly threatening an employee.

Hatch says he merely made a flippant remark to another customer about a store employee. He had complained to store managers for months that employees were snapping up the best Hot Wheels and NASCAR collectible toy cars before they hit the shelves.

Hatch, who has amassed some 5,000 Beanie Babies, also fell into a rift with employees at the Toys R Us store in Bangor about similar complaints. He has been banished from there as well. His response: a Web site. Toys R Us didn't return calls for this article.

Before a company considers legal action, it should first quantify how much of an impact a site is having on customer behavior, consultant Lukaszewski says. Have customers stopped buying your product because of what's on the site? That should set the strategy for your response.

Slight decline

Sales across most of Nike's lines have fallen off in the U.S., and the whole athletic-gear industry is slumping.

Reames acknowledges that labor-related protests have contributed to the company's slowdown - though he says it's hard to tell how much of the decline is because of Web sites and how much is fallout from other media. but the Web sites help unify the boycott movement, he says.

In response, Nike commissioned a third-party investigation of labor practices in the company's Indonesian factories, and CEO Philip Knight has been making speeches to publicize the results, copies of which Nike posts at its corporate Web site.

The best strategy for dealing with hate sites is to stay on top of them and address their complaints, says James Alexander, president of eWatch, Inc., a White Plains, N.Y.-based Internet monitoring service.

"If a company solves my problem, why would I keep up the Web site?" he says. "But I've seen cases where a company didn't resolve the problem fast enough, other people start to send in responses, and the sites lived on even after the original problem was resolved."

That's what happened at Faber's Bally's Total Fitness Sucks site, which he launched last March. Within a few months, he had heard from scores of other unhappy Bally members, whose complaints and other suggested content he added to the hate site.

If Bally had contacted him right away, Faber says, he probably would have let the site die a quiet death.

But Bally didn't respond until last August. By then, the site had developed a life of its own; today, it boasts more than 300 posts from other members.

Faber accepted a settlement offer from Bally last October and now belongs to another health club. But his Bally saga continues: The company sued him this past February for trademark violations.

Lessons learned

But the health club chain learned a valuable lesson: It now surfs Faber's site and contacts members who post complaints, says Dave Southern, vice president of public and investor relations at Bally.

To date, he adds, the company has resolved about two-thirds of the issues raised by the site's visitors. For his part, Faber posts the resolutions if customers write back to him.

"We're paid by companies. Having said that, I think the Internet is the best thing that ever happened for consumer affairs," Alexander says.

"I've seen more consumer problems resolved because of these sites than there ever could have been. But it's a company's fiduciary responsibility to protect its intellectual property, its stock price and to make sure that any information that appears in any media is factually accurate," Alexander says.

Goff is a freelance writer in New York.

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