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Consumer activists widen their Net

We do have consumer citizens here, but not all them have discovered the immense power of the Internet to engage the Govt and large companies that they might want to raise issues with, writes Rahul Sharma.

india Updated: Apr 23, 2008 15:18 IST
Rahul Sharma

Folks out there in the cyberspace are hell bent on influencing whatever they can. If I were a brand manager I’d be looking very closely at the Internet where consumer activists are pushing companies to change tack, re-introduce products that were withdrawn due to the whims of number-crunching marketing gurus, and even forcing banks to stop charging students for overdrafts.

We do have consumer citizens here, but I am not sure how many of them have discovered the immense power of the Internet to engage the government and large companies that they might want to raise issues with. The real strength of the World Wide Web lies in its ability to mobilise tens of thousands of people in a very, very short time.

It is a weapon that still lies largely undiscovered in India because of poor penetration of the Internet and the chalta hai attitude that has become part of our lives. We don’t usually question the way our government and companies function until it morphs into a political issue; most consumer issues don't fall in the political category.

But elsewhere, web-based consumer activism has taken deep roots. Non-governmental organisations, students, issue-based activists usually take to the cyberspace to roll out their messages through various communities and seek support to change things. Protests, like several other things, have taken a new form. The days when placard-carrying people marched through streets or barricaded offices seem to be almost over. Why worry about the weather when you can lodge your protest from the comforts of your home?

Few instances in the United Kingdom in recent past show how Internet communities can make a difference, and bring about change. Last month, for example, the National Union of Students (NUS) forced banking giant HSBC to stop charging students for overdrafts after protests were mounted on Facebook, a social networking site, by the group.

Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off group on Facebook attracted more than 4,000 members. British newspapers quoted HSBC officials as saying that as a service-oriented organisation they had to listen to their customers who had launched this new cyber campaign. I wonder how many Indian banks would follow HSBC if customers begin to harangue them for the various transactional charges?

Wal-Mart, that gigantic retailer most of the world likes to hate, found itself in a spot when its page on Facebook offering school supplies and an opportunity to potential roommates to find each other online prompted people to blast the company’s labour and business practices. Ouch! That’s not what the great retail machine had desired, but it happened and on a platform provided by none other than Wal-Mart itself.

One of the better examples of consumer activism on the Internet that I found was a campaign that forced chocolate maker Cadbury to bring back a brand that it phased out about three years ago.

“Wispa” will return to British stores in October after a campaign on websites such as Facebook.com and Myspace.com. A film titled Bring back the Wispa on YouTube by cultguy urges people to respond to his posting in an attempt to influence Cadbury. That’s not the only one fanning the craze for a product that was dumped since it wasn’t doing well.

Britons, in fact, seem to love this new-style activism. Earlier this year, a record 4 million households dumped their suppliers as gas prices rose after communities got together to protest on the Internet. I doubt if we can dump our utility suppliers, or push our government departments to change. We don’t have much choice to begin with, do we? No harm in trying though.

What do you think? Why not write to us with your views?