Screw the consumer? We're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it anymore

Are you fed up with terrible service? Sick of companies whittling away at their products -- reducing sizes, using cheaper ingredients, showing ads during something you've paid for? Well, it's your fault they're doing it.

Because financial and corporate news is now so widespread that even your local news gives public earnings dispatches between the weather and the pig-nursing-a-cat general interest stories, Americans have been lulled into a state of sympathy for a company that hacks away at the quality of their product for the sake of more profit.

For example, American Airlines used to serve free wine to passengers. Now they don't. "Well, do you know how much it costs to serve wine to everyone?" a typical customer defense might go.

I don't know and I don't care. Compared to a generation ago, we're much more likely to forgive even the most blatant duplicity or most miserly cheapness imaginable as long as a corporate public relations wing is able to tell us how much they're saving by giving us less, or by pretending it's what customers wanted to begin with.

Like the judge who lets the murderer off lightly because he had a tough upbringing, we've become downright liberal about our indulgence of the corrosion of quality for the sake of the bottom line.

Well, wake up. One of the tenets of capitalism, in addition to Thou Must Turn a Profit, is that the best product at the best price is supposed to win.

But countless American industries appear to all but collude in a group effort to simultaneously reduce services, a tricky opportunism that has only accelerated in this recession. Look in the rear-view mirror to see what we've let them do. Cinemas now show ads before movies. Packages at the supermarket are shrinking when prices aren't. Detroit ignored electric cars. U.S.-flagged air carriers are falling behind foreign competitors, and American cola products use high fructose corn syrup when nearly everyone else still drinks Coke made with sugar.

Naked Juice has been exposed for removing vitamin supplements from its fruit drinks. Consumers bought it for its vitamins, but now it's just plain juice, something it claims its "devotees" demanded. Poor Naked Juice. It's struggling in this economy. But so am I. I'm not going to sigh and wish Naked Juice the best if it plays the sympathy card in the press. I'm going to ask it how it plans to make it up to me.

It's not for us to indulge a company for adulterating its product. Don't be seduced by the cult of the C.E.O. personality or the drama over earnings reports. They're placed before your eyes by highly skilled public relations experts. Who cares which Hollywood movie is tops at the box office this week? The consumer's role is simply to demand the best product, not to join into permissiveness about why we somehow asked to get the shaft.

Earnings reports are for heavy investors. Let's take this moment -- this lull in the stock market during which the scales have temporarily fallen from our eyes -- and re-learn how to appraise companies for what they do rather than make excuses for them. Ladies and gentlemen, step away from the business section.

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