Saturday, October 22, 2011

Consumer rant #4: The camouflaged opt-in

We really shouldn’t sign a document unless we’ve read and understood it. That, at least, is the theory. In practice though, we often end up scribbling our signature on something after, at best, a quick read-through.
About a week ago, I was at the Nokia Care centre in Trivandrum to try and fix my mobile phone. It was a busy day at the service centre — I spent about 30 minutes waiting for my turn at the counter. Once I’d explained what the problem was, I was told that I’d have to turn in my phone for it to be fixed. Then came a version of 20 Questions, including demands for my telephone number and e-mail address.
Questions answered, I was given a couple of forms/work orders and told “sign there and there”. I skimmed through the forms, but there seemed to be nothing alarming in them. So I signed, left and forgot all about the forms.
Early this week I was told my phone had been fixed and that I could pick it up. It was while I was at the service centre, waiting to pick up my phone that I actually read my copy of the form/work order. And that’s when I discovered that in one section of the form, I had actually agreed to let Nokia contact me with information on special deals, quizzes and so on. Now that is not something I would sign up for — ever.
Nokia is a brand I have a great deal of affection for. Like many others in India, my first mobile phone was a Nokia. Three-quarters of the mobile phones in our house are Nokias. That, however, does not mean that I want marketing messages from the company texted or e-mailed to me.
As I picked up my (repaired) phone, I asked the person at the delivery counter to modify my work order so that my name would be taken-off the company’s marketing list. I also asked her two questions: Why did the work order ask customers to agree to receive marketing messages? And why hadn’t I been told that I was also agreeing to receive marketing messages from the company when I signed the service centre’s work order? She hummed and hawed, and didn’t really give me an answer.
The answer is, perhaps, that in these times of ‘do not disturb’ registries and tough markets, opt-in marketing is a necessity. Something that many companies work into their marketing strategy. I understand that. However, isn’t informed consent a must for opt-in marketing?
I agree I made a mistake. I should have read the form/work order properly before signing it. At the same time, shouldn’t the person at the service centre have flagged it for me? Shouldn’t I have been told that along with agreeing to the service conditions, I was also agreeing to receive marketing messages from the company? Shouldn’t I have also been told that this was, presumably, completely voluntary?
Perhaps Nokia’s marketing policy does insist that informed consent should be obtained from customers. If it does, then that policy is merrily being flouted, at least by the company’s service centre in Trivandrum. Will the company fix this? I have no idea.
What I know though is that I’ve re-learnt an important lesson: Always read and understand something before signing it. I may sign on to receive information on special deals, but it will only be after I’ve read and understood what I’m signing on for.

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