Channel-hopping during half-time in the Champions’ League games yesterday evening, I found Anne Robinson’s curiously-immobile fizzog looking out at me. She was doing her consumerist Watchdog thing, and the story she was telling was not a pretty one.
Hotpoint, it seems, have been building several models of dishwasher that have a nasty habit of bursting into flames. For six months Hotpoint knew about this but chose to do nothing. Then, eventually, they implemented the standard (and I think statutory) product recall procedure, which involves running a smallish black-and-white ad in three different national papers and writing to any customers whose addresses you happen to have.
All this happened last year, and as a result it seems that about 20% of the owners of these inflammable machines have responded and had them fixed. The remaining 80% – according to the programme, several hundred thousand people – are pretty much literally still accidents waiting to happen.
The programme was in fact using this Hotpoint story as an example of product recall stories generally. Whether you have a car with brakes that tend to fail or a jar of jam that may contain glass fragments, your chances of actually noticing a product recall campaign and doing something about it are typically about 15 – 20%. It’s all a bit of a fiasco really – a token effort that makes very little difference.
Apart from making me check our dishwasher (no problem, it’s a Bosch) this unsatisfactory state of affairs triggered two thoughts in my mind.
First, I couldn’t help wondering whether it makes sense that the providers of, say, underperforming endowments or unexpectedly volatile funds should be under so much more of an obligation than anyone else when it comes to product recall campaigns. In financial services, after all, we usually contact and compensate the huge majority of our mistreated customers, not just 15 or 20 per cent – and doing so can cost many millions, or even billions, of pounds. (This is not to say that financial services providers should be under any less of an obligation – rather that surely firms providing products that can threaten life and limb should be under more.)
But then second, since it was still a few minutes till the games re-started, I allowed myself to stray into a quick ponder on the nature of good and evil. If I’d been a Hotpoint executive during those six months that I knew our machines could be lethal, would I have been happy that we’d decided to do nothing about it for as long as possible? If I worked for one of th Big Pharma companies, would I happily take on the marketing for an extremely profitable drug that seemed to cause troubling side-effects? If I worked for a Big Food company, how would I feel about marketing ready meals that contained many times more sugar than anyone could reasonably imagine?
The players were coming back onto the pitches, so it was time to come up with answers, not more questions. For most of us, I decided, it all comes down to Stanley Milgram (see blog on 7th Feb): his famous experiment, now partially but not completely discredited, says that most perfectly ordinary people will do horrible things if they think that’s what they need to do to please their superiors.
In consumer-facing businesses, despite the innumerable examples such as those I’ve mentioned here, it would be too cynical to say that we’re grimly determined to rip the customer off at every possible opportunity, and to take every single short-cut we can think of even when we know it means risking people’s lives.
But I don’t think it would be too cynical to say that if we’ve been given sales or other financial targets, and if our job security or pay rise or bonus or share options depend on hitting them, then when push comes to shove most of us are willing to decide that meeting the target is the priority, even if that does mean killing a few customers.
As I’ve said before in this blog, I don’t think the financial industry is any worse in this respect than any other, and in fact our capacity to do serious harm is a good deal less than many. An underperforming endowment is bad, but it’s not as bad as a Ford car with a fuel tank so badly positioned that, as Ford executives knew perfectly well, it was likely to turn the car into a fireball in even low-impact collisions.
What we are, I think is much more closely regulated than any other consumer-facing industry – and much more obligated to offer recompense when our failings are found out. If that system of regulation is still far from perfect, and if it misses some really big and important stuff and pounces much too enthusiastically on some utterly trivial and incidental stuff, I’m still in no doubt that having it is much better than not having it.
But best of all, of course, would be not needing it.