Should I advocate for myself?

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By Christopher Elliott

Am I allowed to help myself? That might seem like an easy question to answer, but it isn’t, and I could use your help.

Here’s the problem: About three months ago, my MacBook Air began to develop a little screen problem. A black vertical stripe appeared whenever I fired up the computer, and it remained there.

You should know a few things about this laptop. I bought it on Oct. 21, 2010, a day after Apple released it. For me, it was the perfect travel companion; lightweight, fast and easy to use.

The black stripe

I didn’t go for the optional warranty, but as it turns out, that wouldn’t have been an issue — my problem developed after the warranty would have expired, according to a “genius” at the Apple store in Longwood, Fla., where I took my computer after it started feeling sick. (And I don’t use the word “genius” facetiously; that’s what they call themselves.)

The black stripe didn’t bother me at first. It came and went, and I’d heard that it was a firmware problem that could easily be fixed with a software update. But the next OS version didn’t do anything to my MacBook Air.

If anything, the problem got worse. Instead of fading in and out, the black line went stubbornly solid. It turns out I wasn’t alone.

I took the PC to the Apple store and a technician ran a few tests. He confirmed that it wasn’t damaged and that it probably was a software problem that could go away with a future system update. But it might not.

Then things got a little interesting. He noted in my file that I’d appealed a previous case to Apple, and that it had bent its rules for me. That problem involved a peripheral screen that stopped working after about a year of use. (No warranty had been offered on it, and Apple’s suggested solution was to simply buy another monitor. I sent an email directly to Apple’s chief legal counsel, and it changed its mind.)

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Advocacy influence for personal gain

The Apple genius suggested I appeal to an executive again.

But I have a few ethical misgivings about doing that. It takes about half a second to Google me and figure out that I’m a consumer advocate and that I’ve written a book called Scammed.

When your grievance is appealed to the executive level, a company typically reviews your file, and mine will show that 1) I’m a loyal Apple customer (I bought an iPad 3 the day it came out) and; 2) I have a history of taking my complaint to a higher level; and 3) probably, that I’m a media guy.

I have colleagues who wouldn’t think twice about leveraging their names to squeeze a concession out of a company, even one that is unwarranted. In my case, I probably don’t deserve to have the stripe fixed. The MacBook air is out of warranty. Apple would probably replace a processor, which would cost it money.

At the same time, the stripe is annoying and affects my productivity. It’s not that big of a deal when I’m at home, since I connect another monitor to the laptop. But one the road (I’m currently on assignment in Georgia) it’s a huge problem.

Balancing consumer advocacy with personal benefit

A flight attendant I recently met, who happens to own the same Mac, suggested that I have it all wrong: As a consumer advocate, I have a duty to bring this to Apple’s attention, and at the highest level. How else can they fix this problem or prevent it from happening again?

At the very least, I should write something about this, she said. I promised her I would. (Here’s how to fix your own consumer problem.)

Yet I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I want to avoid even the perception that I could be pressuring Apple to help me because of who I am. I’ve seen other consumer advocates leverage their position for personal gain, and it’s wrong on so many levels. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s right to pay Apple to repair something that should have never broken. (Related: How do I get my MacBook Pro problem fixed (for free)?

If this were a reader asking me to help fix a laptop, I probably wouldn’t hesitate. But I don’t know if I should do it for myself.

Is it OK to use your own power if it benefits you? Or am I limiting my options because of a high-minded — but ultimately misplaced — sense of ethics?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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