Are consumer advocates about to go extinct?


Henry Sheng makes me feel like a failure.

He recently rented a Chevrolet Malibu LT from Enterprise in Santa Clara, Calif. The car wasn’t exactly in mint condition, with numerous bumps, scrapes and dings on the high-mileage vehicle clearly visible before he rented it.

And if you’re a regular reader of this site, you can probably guess what happened next, right?

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A few weeks after returning the Malibu, Enterprise sent Sheng a letter claiming he’d damaged the rental and demanding his insurance information.

“Should I fill this out and send this to back to them or should I not?” he wanted to know.

Well, let me tell you what he should have done.

Sheng should have taken pictures of the car with his smartphone — before and after. He should have noted any damage and asked an associate to sign the rental form, acknowledging he had a clunker. And if he was uncomfortable with the condition of his Chevy, he should have asked for another car.

I’m at the point in my career as a consumer advocate where I take these failures personally.

I don’t blame Sheng. I blame myself.

I’ve been advocating for you for about two decades. I’ve been issuing the same warnings (Enterprise is super-vigilant about damage claims, so take photos of your cars, people!), yet customers make the same mistakes over and over. And over.

But consumers won’t get any smarter if today’s media outlets have their way.

One of my colleagues — the person who actually inspired me to become a consumer advocate — recently quit her prestigious magazine job after her employer eliminated its ombudsman position. (Apparently, consumer advocacy didn’t do anything for ad sales.)

A major travel site, launched recently with much fanfare, featured plenty of tightly-written postcard stories about glitzy destinations and videos with gorgeous 20-somethings speaking broken Italian. But its sole piece of consumer insight, as far as I could tell, was a story advertising the fact that its editors “like free stuff.”

Oh, really? Good luck helping real travelers with their problems.

Ah, and then there’s my messy divorce with a certain financial service website. I haven’t said much about that, and the details are really unimportant.

The most interesting part about my falling out with said outlet was a post-breakup conversation with another consumer advocate, whose work I’ve admired for many years.

He contacted me after hearing I’d left. I explained some of the challenges — how the site had first given me carte blanche to write about consumer issues and then slowly pulled the rug out from under me, instructing me to not name names (could offend a potential “partner”) and eventually ordering me to stop criticizing corporate America because, well, it was part of corporate America.

The final straw, I explained to my colleague, was when my editor insisted that all future stories about customer service issues be “positive.” You know, show people how to make the most of a product, tell them how to get more “free” stuff, make them better consumers.

“I’m not surprised,” he told me.

He’d been issued similar orders by his media outlets. He was disgusted — and demoralized.

You’d assume we, the folks who are supposed to have your back, are powerless to do anything. Since I’m getting paid by these “news” outlets, I must do their bidding. And customers like Sheng are condemned to read articles that are eviscerated of any useful information, with the names of the offending companies redacted, the consumer advice sanitized, the tone turned saccharine so that it doesn’t offend any potential “partners.”

But that’s not true. As you probably know, I left the self-censoring financial news site.

But there’s more to the story.

I also announced another change at about the same time, and what I didn’t say, but I will reveal now, is that I had similar reasons for making that move. To be clear, it wasn’t the only reason, but it was the thing that pushed me over the cliff — an article about a large airline that, I learned, had been killed to placate an advertiser.

The editor who deleted the story thought I had no choice but to quietly accept the censorship, which proved to be incorrect. My contract was only a few months from expiring, and even though it was an extremely difficult and costly decision, I chose not to renew it. I would have rather ended my consumer advocacy column than continue working under those conditions.

The advocates I know make many sacrifices and carry a heavy burden. The few that remain gave up opportunities to practice law or run a successful business because they care deeply about you. At the same time, they take it personally when their own readers get scammed, swindled and cheated by an unscrupulous business.

If we go extinct, the advertisers may win. But you lose.

Sheng’s case had a happy ending, in case you’re wondering. He used the information on my site to appeal his case to Enterprise, which dropped the claim.

And me? I’d rather go on unemployment than appease an advertiser or a large corporation. And you should expect nothing less.

Are consumer advocates about to go extinct?

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27 thoughts on “Are consumer advocates about to go extinct?

  1. I do not think that they are going extinct at all. They serve a very noble purpose usually for very little recognition or monetary gain. Most consumers have no idea how to navigate their way through a complaint process that is heavily weighted against them. Perhaps you need a ticker on your site that shows how much time and money you have saved consumers over the years in order to put your work in perspective. As an example how much did Harry Sheng save by contacting you?

    I applaud your stance that you do not wish to be censored. Unfortunately a site that relies on outside advertisers will not want to see the people that pay their bills be put down on their site. I guess the question will be how does a consumer advocate stay in business if businesses are reluctant to upset their advertisers?

  2. People like you Chris, are few and getting fewer. We thank you for not giving up and giving in. Having said that, consumers need to take responsibility for their own best interest. If the guy was able to find you and ask for help after the fact, he clearly is able to read. Maybe before renting that car he should have done some reading to educate himself in the way car rental operates. People must learn to help themselves first.

    1. Kasiar, people need advocates like Chris to help them learn. I’m sure that this guy now knows what to do when he rents a car.

      It’s easy to say ‘take responsibility’. It’s not so easy to find the knowledge you need, particularly when you are young, idealistic, and ignorant of how the world actually works. Chris is helping us all get the knowledge we need.

        1. Isn’t it typically the case that those that think they know enough are the ones that have the most to learn? I travel a lot and come here often, mostly though for the comments and not the articles. I find them mostly educational and I appreciate people sharing their experiences and opinions.

          1. The comments have been very, very educational for me and I’ve employed many of the things I’ve learned in both the articles and the comments in my travels and other consumer experiences. For example, using email to contact my phone provider, when it wasn’t “providing” and then using that documentation to get my phone bill adjusted. Screen prints (suggested by various folks) were very, very helpful. Thank you, everyone!

          2. No, I wouldn’t say it’s typical. Sometimes Chris or another consumer advocate might be able and willing to help them, especially if the consumers in question are knowledgeable about what to do when making a reservation, picking up a rental car, etc. I started reading this site a long time ago, and before then I would never have known about many of the things Chris suggests. Now, I personally would follow his suggestions if I have a consumer issue that needs to be resolved, but if I tried them out and still didn’t get reasonable resolution from the company, which is not an impossibility, I’d ask a consumer advocate, perhaps Chris, for help.

    2. I’m all for personal responsibility. I scream it (figuratively) often enough. But I rarely rent vehicles when I travel and it is through this site that I’ve learned what the current operating practices are in that area of travel.

  3. Consumer’s Research organization has been around for most of my adult lifetime. They are mostly concerned with products. I look at your site as a “Consumer’s Research for services.” I believe the need for this will increase exponentially as more and more business is conducted on the internet. Consumer information is basically the critical sharing of the experiences of others. It is always up to the purchaser to heed the advice: caveat emptor.

    To use the rental car example, I foresee the collection of information that may confirm that dishonesty is found predominantly in one or two companies to the exclusion of others. Perhaps the credit card companies that back up the insurance or the combined experience of auto insurance companies will add to the pool of information in identifying malefactors.

    Stick around Chris, we need you.

  4. OMG, I hope not! It must be a fine line between being totally truthful and offending your advertisers … it’s a shame that sponsors/advertisers think they can’t deal with the slightest negative, even if it’s presented as constructive. Everything must be politically correct today, can’t offend anyone anywhere. The price for allowing this to happen is that the consumer has a difficult time getting to the truth. I was reading descriptions of a hotel in Croatia on the BestWestern site last night … two or three paragraphs of gobbly-gook with very few facts … thank God the internet gives me lots of opportunities to find out the real facts before I book the hotel. Looking at Wendy’s recent move, I’m hoping that getting out of the mainstream media onto the internet will offer more opportunities to describe things as they really are. I’ve learned more from you, Chris, than any other source.

  5. Consumer advocacy in the press is probably going away as publishers bow to advertisers. I guess there’s always been tension between reporting and making a buck, but it feels like it’s right on the surface these days, and publishers are willing to forgo trust in certain sectors just to stay alive. It takes a lot of nerve to bite the hand that feeds you, most folks just don’t have the spine for it — or worse, they don’t care because hey, they’re making a buck.

    But I hope people like you find a way to keep it up on an independent level. It can be very hard to get your issues sorted and taking a shocking amount of time and tenacity; without the help of advocates the customer really ends up just getting screwed.

  6. I’m hoping that all the folks who support you will take the time to click on the “Support” tab at the top of the page and contribute a little something to keep *you* from going extinct. It takes principles to speak the truth when there’s a paycheck at stake, but principles don’t pay the bills.

    Off-topic: Much better picture today. it goes with my Chicago Field Museum t-shirt today.

    1. On an aside but related note, I saw your US Today commercial. Nice tights. 😉 Seriously, if US Today is advertising your column (among others) says to me that they believe in what you’re doing.

  7. I voted “No”. As long as we still have good people like Chris, they will never go extinct, and I have faith that there are still more good people out there. It pains me that companies would put profit before truth, but I am not surprised.

  8. As in every business, Media has & will come under more pressure by major Hotel, Car Rental
    , Airline & Cruise Line companies for better profits. It is then they will apply to these media outlets to “muzzle” or get rid of consumer advocates. That’s my fear.
    1 way out? Band all Consumer Advocates as in an association idea to speak with 1 strong voice to “push back” as it were.
    Not remotely connected to this or any business, as I have been retired for some 18 years now, but Strength In Numbers”. That & advocating strongly on your own behalf, as in this article might keep you all from either having to quit, or worse yet bend to corporate pressure to keep a needed job. I have 2 words – GOOD LUCK!

  9. As a fellow journalist, Chris, I say — good for you. I have been lucky to have (almost) always written for sites that did not pressure me to change my opinions. I don’t make a lot of money, but I feel good about what I write.


  10. Are travel consumer advocates necessary? Without a doubt.

    Here’s a bit of personal proof: Although I publish a wide range of travel-related stories, the one I wrote about “travel clubs” two and a half years ago has been viewed almost 35,000 times, including 266 times yesterday alone, and garnered 550 comments (including my responses) thus far.

    As far as I’m concerned that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg for that single consumer travel issue. I’m sure, like you Chris, I (and the clones or staff I’d need) could devote full-time just dealing with consumer travel problems.

    The need for consumer advocates will end when corporate America decides to place the customer first and shareholders last. But don’t look for that to come to pass anytime in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, we’ll all need people like you to go to bat for us.

    Best wishes for all of your future endeavors, Chris.

  11. Ethics and morals come at a steep price, both financially and physically (I’m sure you’ve lost much sleep about this). Thank you for your sacrifice to do what is right and not what is easy.

  12. Even not living in USA, I find your columns and advises very helpful. Sometimes I disagree with you, but I know you are trying to do your best for the OP. I hope you continue your work.

  13. You do provide an extraordinary service to people who, for the most part, can’t defend themselves.
    It is, sad to say, all about the money though when it comes to corporate America.
    You or your kind won’t go extinct though, as long as that same Corporate America keeps dumping on the little guy. Keep up the good work, and keep your chin up. You ARE appreciated.

  14. Thank you for being there and doing what you do. I appreciate the information you share and the learning opportunities you provide. While I don’t always agree with your opinion on certain topics, I respect it.

  15. You do a great job, Chris! You’re a good egg, and people will always need others who are willing to stand up for them. I can’t even start to list how much I’ve learned through your site and through comments. Thanks for doing what you do. You’re helping other people, and that’s what we’re all really supposed to do.

  16. I don’t think you’re going extinct. I do think that the sites you work for make it harder and harder to do your job as a consumer advocate, but that ultimately means that you’re more and more needed by consumers like Henry Sheng.

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