In a move that has garnered instant criticism and much head shaking, General Mills, a mega company best known as the maker of a long line of cereals, recently added some legalese to their website that shows no love for their Facebook fans and coupon users, among other customers. The company website alerts its consumers, rather quietly, that if they download any coupons, enter any sponsored sweepstakes or similar contests, or join their social media communities, they forfeit the right to sue General Mills, even for health reasons.
The list of company “benefits” is expansive and has been re-defined by General Mills to be widely inclusive. They now define benefits as any discounts, online content, posted features and services, or other offerings accessed from their websites, joining their websites, online communities, or subscription lists, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering any contest, and redeeming a promotional offer, among others. In simpler terms, General Mills is not showing no love for their consumers, especially their Facebook fans and coupon users.
General Mill has a ubiquitous presence on the shelves and freezers of homes and grocery stores. The company owns other popular brands such as Nature Valley, Yoplait, Pillsbury, Old El Paso, Betty Crocker, Häagen-Dazs, and Progresso, among others. So it’s time for consumers to be aware. This is because most users faced with reams of legal jargon that greet them at most company websites, agree to privacy and other terms without reading them.
Now if consumers were to read the General Mills website, they would find out that the new terms state that if a consumer has received or purchased anything at all that could be deemed a “benefit” and then has a dispute with the company over its products, they are limited to using what is effectively being called forced arbitration. In other words, “benefiting” customers can no longer bring a lawsuit against the company. Instead, they are agreeing to use informal negotiations such as haggling with a company rep or emailing them, followed with private arbitration or an appearance in small claims court, to seek redressal.
The only way for a consumer to get out of the new terms is by emailing the company’s legal team and completely dissociating themselves with the brand. In other words, un-liking all General Mills posts and their Facebook page as well as unregistering from all their email lists.
However consumer advocates and other activists are outraged by General Mills’ efforts to avoid class action or consumer suits, even when engaging in bad corporate behavior. A recent example is the class action suit brought by Florida and California consumers, who claimed that the health and nutritional information on Yoplait YoPlus and Nature Valley products are erroneous. Disputing the claim, the company wants to use arbitration to seek a solution instead of battling the charges in court.
Julia Duncan, director of federal programs and an arbitration expert said that this was the first time that a food company was choosing this path, and if it works, more would follow. According to her, this is the company’s way of protecting itself from all accountability and every form of liability.
So consumers need to be careful before downloading a coupon or liking some ad selling sugary snacks on the company Facebook page. With the click of a button, they could unwittingly be entering into an obligatory contractual relationship with the company, which is being deemed far from equal. Indeed, General Mills appears to show little or no love for its customers, especially Facebook members and coupon users. So, consumers beware.
By Monalisa Gangopadhyay