A Consumer Advocate’s Mailbag

Often, magazine and newspaper editors describe the letters-to­-the-editors column as among the most widely read sections of their publications. What is therefore astonishing is the relatively small space that many large newspaper editors provide for publishing cogent letters from their readers. Unless there are too few letter-writing readers, why is it not considered advisable to allow more column inches and encourage not only those reader contributions which respond to some editorial or article, but also letters that make a point or report an event or condition?

I am reminded of this question frequently while perusing the many letters which people send to consumer groups and consumer protection agencies. It is unfortunate that there is no regular outlet for printing such correspondence. Few of these letters can be classified as headline makers. But they display in written form an alertness, an activity and a moral indignation that are expressed orally in greater abundance in the marketplace by shoppers unwilling to silently lump their complaints.

A man from Rockville, Maryland writes of recently winning “a landmark decision in small claims court . . . that sets an important legal precedent.” Acting as his own attorney, William Fitzgerald filed a law suit against a new car dealer who had riveted the company logo on his car against his consent. The judge awarded damages for this “forced advertising.” The Honda dealer is appealing the case and Mr. Fitzgerald says he needs legal assistance.

From Buffalo, New York comes a letter from Mr. Albert Diminuco, an eighth grade health and physical education teacher, at St. Aloysius school. His class has started a project challenging the Topol tooth polish commercials which are using cigarette smoking to sell their product.

Copies of several student letters to Topol’s manufacturer are enclosed. One, by David Tomasello, observes: “The commercials state that smoke stains may be left on your teeth, but you do not state that smoke is absorbed by the lungs and cannot be removed. The change we would suggest is either the removal of the commercial, or have the Surgeon General’s warning used on commercials or packaging.”

Student Liz Battistella reminds the company of the statistics connecting cigarette smoking with lung cancer and other diseases and declares: “We are not going to have our letters pushed away as junk mail, we will not stand by without a challenge. We are committed to our project.”

From San Jose, California, general contractor, Alfred Rogers recounts an increasingly familiar story about auto companies converting standard equipment to extra-cost options. He bought a Ford Club Wagon and discovered there were no inside door handles on the rear doors. The salesman neglected to point out that these door handles are now options which later cost Mr. Rogers “an exhorbitant $90.00.” (Ford Canada says they cost $28 in that country). “We feel the omission of such a handle is truly dangerous,” he writes, “in case of fire or accident. I hope you can persuade Ford Motor Company to install door handles as standard equipment.”

Winter tires with wider tread grooves trouble Jason Weiner of Hicksville, New York. They pick up and spin off pebbles that can “strike and break a headlight or windshield” of an oncoming vehicle. He adds: “Trucks have splash guards to prevent them from causing this hazard. Some cars have them as optional equipment. They are relatively inexpensive and easily installed. Let’s start a campaign to make them mandatory. Another benefit would be the possibility of lower insurance rates.”

And so the people write of their grievances and proposed solutions. Sometime in the future, anthropologists no doubt will discover these letters as a rich source of data about power and injustice in the marketplace. It is too bad that these voices are not given more recognition now to produce more fairness today.

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