(See update at the end of the post.)
While I typically support efforts to add sanity to our overly-litigious culture that seems to encourage anyone to sue anybody for anything, I don’t think the lawyers at General Mills thought through the type of social media firestorm they would ignite by adding language to the company’s website alerting customers they can’t take legal action against the company if they’ve done things like download a coupon, enter a contest or, if read literally, liked on Facebook one of the company’s products, say, Cheerios or Wheaties or Macaroni Grill or Fruit Loops.
There obviously had to be a major battle between the marketers and the lawyers at General Mills before this decision was made. I say that, because the company is packed full of extremely savvy marketing people who have successfully guided some powerful brands astutely into the social media era.
I’m also thinking of what I believe to be a stellar display of content marketing, TableSpoon.com, and the incredible job the talented team who started it and has turned that site into a showpiece of customer media. Yet today, right there on the top of its homepage, it too is displaying a link to some legal language that undermines the kind of community-building finesse TableSpoon has displayed while so many others have tried and failed.
According to the New York Times, General Mills is following in the footsteps of other large companies that are trying to prevent class-action lawsuit by adding website terms of usage language that requires customers to use informal negotiation via email or go through arbitration to seek relief over any dispute it has with the company.
Last year, the company paid $8.5 million to settle lawsuits over positive health claims made on the packaging of its Yoplait Yoplus yogurt. At the time, it said did not agree with the accusations, but wanted to end the litigation. In 2012, it settled another suit by removing the strawberry from the packaging of Strawberry Fruit Roll-ups, which did not contain strawberries, said the Times.
Hey, I’m a fan of arbitration and probably would support General Mills’ objectives in what they are trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, by overreaching the boundaries of common sense by describing the types of rights an individual gives up by “liking” a product like Cheerios on Facebook, they have opened their company to ridicule and have set back legitimate tort reform efforts.
And they’ve made lots of people not like them unnecessarily.
Update: On April 19, the General Mills director of external communications blogged a mea culpa — in other words, customers of General Mills had the last word in this matter. In addition to announcing that the terms-of-use were rolled back to the pre-controversy, nothing-about-arbitration version, the post was filled with language like : “On behalf of our company and our brands, we would also like to apologize. We’re sorry we even started down this path. And we do hope you’ll accept our apology. We also hope that you’ll continue to download product coupons, talk to us on social media, or look for recipes on our websites.”