Elephants and Consumer Outrage

There’s a famous story they tell about training an elephant. If you’ve  ever seen a trained elephant, you will see this massive elephant is kept at bay by an ordinary tent stake. Now, obviously this animal could with a simple flick of a leg, pull the stake out and roam the streets. But it doesn’t, and here is why.

When it was tiny, the trainer would tether it with similar stake. The small cub would struggle against the stake, and would be defeated time and time again. Eventually, it would learn that it could never defeat the tether. So, when it is a grown beast, capable of crushing training and all with single step, it feels the tension of the tether.

And it remembers and believes it is useless to fight against the stake. So, the massive power of this magnificent animal is kept in check by this tiny little measure. I think this is a powerful metaphor we could use  a lot of places in life. We are much more powerful than we think we are.

Today I have been thinking about this in particular, in reference to consumer outrage. I have learned that consumer outrage typically doesn’t work.

Really, the truth is, it takes a lot to get me to open my wallet. A whole lot. And when I do, I expect…well…probably a lot more for my buck that I should. Most of my consumer outrage has centered around that fact. And once I learned the hard reality that “you get what you pay for,” I stopped being outraged. Well, I thought, I should have just bought the more expensive package. And there goes my angry, capitalist entitlement letter.

I guess this started about when I was seventeen.  I was working retail for minimum wage, and consumer power was a new and thrilling concept. I went to a Mexican restaurant and was overcharged for condiments. The amount I was overcharged was worth about an entire hour of running around like crazy chicken trying to help customers who weren’t always that easy to help. Just thinking about an hour in that environment makes me tired now. So, here I was, that hour basically wasted. I wasn’t going to have it.

I talked to the waiter, who patiently explained the pricing. I told him that that wasn’t right, and could I speak to the manager. This took a lot of waiting around, allowing my outrage to grow. The manager finally came, and I explained to him that I had been overcharged. He explained what the waiter already said, and upheld the bill. We argued for a few more minutes, until I finally realized I wasn’t going to win here. I reluctantly paid the bill  and asked for the senior manager’s name and number. They gave it to me.

The next morning I called the senior manager, who had obviously already been briefed in the situation.  I asked for a refund of the amount I had been overcharged. He resolutely upheld the bill,  stating I had been correctly charged. I felt taken advantage of, and my consumer power training had told me a customer can get anything they want if they go high enough. So, I asked for the district manager’s contact information. He gave it to me.

I wrote a nice letter to the district manager explaining the situation and asking for a refund or at least a phone call. A few days later, I received a phone call from the district manager. He politely explained that I had been correctly charged, and that they could not issue a refund.

I was deflated. I felt helpless and powerless. I vowed to never go there again. But, really, I liked the food, and it was a pretty big Mexican restaurant in town. My solitary boycott only hurt me.  And the worst part of it was, I was embarrassed for causing such a stink over about six dollars. learned then that consumer power isn’t as powerful as we think it is.

So,  this weekend, when I got charged by Redbox by surprise, I didn’t do anything.

For anyone that’s lived on the moon for the last decade, Redbox is a vending machine for DVD’s. It reduces an entire video store, to a little box in a corner, much like a soft drink machine. It has a touch screen, allowing you to browse for DVD’s. Once you select one, you swipe your debit card and it promises to charge you about $1 per day. Then your movie is dispensed.

The trick to the Redbox is that you can keep the movie presumably as long as you want, at the $1 per day rate. But, after fourteen days, the fine print states, your card will be charged the full retail price of the movie.

Now, I don’t rent movies often. I never have. So remembering to return a DVD, is like, remembering to pair your socks in the sock drawer. It’s something that I give myself a gold star if I manage it. Otherwise, I’ve got more important things to do..

So when I kept the movies for two months on accident, and was finally charged a hefty fine that screwed me over, I was screwed. I am like that elephant kept in place by a tiny stake, because it remembers that it used to be defeated by the stake.

Consumer outrage is useless. And so the elephant, sits quietly eating peanuts.


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