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Webloyalty PR Campaign Uses Bill Clinton "Is" Defense

After having mentioned the U.S. Senate's criticism of some deceptive online sales tactics and the companies mentioned, including Webloyalty.com, I received an email from Kekst and Co., a PR firm specializing in "serious corporate issues." In other words, a crisis communications consultancy. The email offered a press release titled WEBLOYALTY PROVIDES FACTUAL DESCRIPTION OF ENROLLMENT PROCESS. However, when I analyzed it, I realized it was a variation on the Bill Clinton defense: it all depends on what the meaning of "is" is. In other words, this is another clever use of verb tense to try and deflect criticism.

The blue dress wording conveys a sense of being wrongfully wounded:

"Webloyalty cannot and will not enroll a consumer in one of our discount membership programs without that individual's express consent, and, contrary to widely published reports, enrolling in our discount clubs requires more than a single mouse click. The data transfer and enrollment process occurs only if the consumer takes all of the following affirmative steps:- Enters the last 4 digits of his or her credit or debit card and it matches the data on the card used in the transaction with our e-commerce partner;

- Enters his or her email address;

-Confirms the email address provided; and

- Clicks on the "YES! Click Here Now to Sign Up" button.

"While other companies in our industry have pledged to adopt the step of requiring consumers to enter the last four digits of their credit or debit card, Webloyalty implemented this step on August 1, and continues to be the only company of its kind that has implemented it.

But notice a few things here. Webloyalty didn't implement any of this until August 1, and all this seems related to the settlement of the class action lawsuit over practices by Webloyalty and others that, in my mind, at least, you could only charitably call misleading. The settlement document pretty well specifies the types of activities that the programs would have to implement. Even though they didn't mention re-entering digits from a credit card number at all, the agreement to actually tell consumers what was going on is pretty clear. It is similarly obvious that the companies, including Webloyalty, didn't previously do so in a clear way.

As to Webloyalty's statement that this is response to the Senate committee's report, if you look at footnote 6 on page 3, the Committee already mentioned how the company said in August that it had changed its practices.

Why, then, is Webloyalty, through Kekst, presenting this argument? My suspicion is that it is carefully constructing a statement to make it sound as though it's been misunderstood, although the evidence would suggest otherwise. As Bill Clinton effectively pointed out, if you only address what is happening now, you're avoiding what happened in the past. Had it wanted to really address the issue, it would have said that it had seen the light (after being sued and investigated) and changed its policies.

But why leave Webloyalty, Affinion, and Vertrue in the stocks alone? According to the Senate Committee, many of the leading online companies -- including Classmates.com, Continental Airlines, Hotwire, Orbitz, Priceline, Shutterfly, VistaPrint, FTD, and 1-800-Flowers -- that used them knew exactly what was going on:

E-Commerce companies know that their customers are being harmed by the aggressive sales tactics of Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty. The e-commerce companies partnered with Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty understand that more aggressive sales tactics lead to higher revenue. In the words of one company official, "to generate more revenue through Webloyalty, it seems we must be more aggressive (and deceptive) in our marketing techniques." Thousands of customers have contacted the companies using words like "fraud," "tricked," "deceptive," "misleading," "scam," "deceitful," "dishonest," "betrayed," and "robbed" to describe their experiences. This "customer noise" has led a number of e-commerce partners to request a more "conservative" approach or to end their relationships with Affinion, Vertrue, or Webloyalty.
Perhaps more attention should be paid to them, and the detrimental effect they are having on all e-commerce companies that find themselves tarred with the same brush, no matter how unfairly.

Image via stock.xchng user Splenetic, site standard license.

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