Fun Express: The Ethics of Delivering Product Recalls

In New media, Product recall on May 26, 2009 at 4:19 pm

The more I look into product recalls, the more I’m convinced that companies should approach this form of communication as apologetic discourse, rather than just merely product information. Mattel showed how powerful such a holistic communication approach can be. Now, Fun Express is showing the exact opposite.

When you look at companies that have successfully communicated product recalls, you see a number of elements that fall into the realm of apologetic rhetoric: explain what happened, offer an apology (sometimes through mortification, sometimes through scapegoating), provide details about corrective action that the company will take to avoid similar problems in the future, and even offer reparations (as in money-back or product exchange offers). Moreover, with today’s high-tech, social media environment, these elements are often delivered through various channels in a modular approach that provides easy access to consumers and allows them to quickly navigate to the information they want and need most.

Fun Express–which has issued two product recalls of face paints for children due to irritation–has failed on both accounts. They’ve neither provided an explanation of the problem, the corrective actions they’re undertaking, or the reparations available to consumers who trusted and purchased these products. Additionally, they’ve neglected to use even the basic web 1.0 tools available to help announce the recall and help spread the word to consumers.

In fact, a quick search of the Fun Express website demonstrates that the recall information isn’t even visible or accessible. Even a “search” for “product recall” comes up blank. To find the only relevant information on their website, you have to first click on the Contact Us link at the bottom on their site, and then click on the “Safety News/Hot Topics” link in the sidebar. And even that only brings you to a news announcement from last February where the company describes the safety steps it is implementing.

Understandably, not every company can or should release a full-scale web 2.0 interactive response like Mattel and Domino’s every time they’re in the news for negative reasons. But, why wouldn’t the company add information to its website to help consumers and its wholesalers quickly learn about the recall? Why not post an explanation and instill trust by discussing corrective action steps that will avoid future problems? And why not, at the very least, post pictures of the products for easy identification? Even the FDA posted face paint images as part of its online announcement.

As of the date of this blog posting, Fun Express has only managed to dispense basic product numbers in its May 22 press release, as well as generic press release statements, such as:

  • “If consumers have any of the recalled products remaining in their possession, they should immediately discard them.”
  • “Consumers can contact Fun Express, Inc. by calling (888) 999-0442 between the hours of 9:00 am and 5:00 pm CST, Monday through Friday.”

And, of course…

  • “Fun Express, Inc. is committed to the safety of its products and strives to lead the industry in product safety.”

Really? Wouldn’t a commitment to safety involve using your online presence to inform consumers about safety issues rather than just to sell products?

All of this raises questions about the ethics of not using online resources such as promotional websites, online FAQ pages, images and videos, and even social media in a modular, apologetic approach to providing information and instilling trust with consumers as part of the product recall announcement.

This is definitely an area that deserves more attention and research.

  1. That’s a good point and one that we often run up against with any guideline or law.

    In thinking more about this, I think there are a couple of things to consider. First, what are the standards or best practices for delivery product recall information via new media (websites, blogs, social networks)? The CPSC and FDA have very rudimentary guidance on this. A more robust set of guidelines would help, as would more research and writing by practitioners and academics.

    The second part worthy of consideration is what should the text say or do when product recall information is delivered via new media? The official product recall releases feature specific wording negotiated by the government agency and the company at fault. But, when company’s delivery the news via their websites or social networking pages, they can add wording or even spin the information.

    With all that in mind, apologia theory can be helpful in a few ways. First, it can help provide a framework for analyzing product recalls, like Mattel’s last year, that do include an explicit apology. Second, they can be helpful in analyzing the subtle denials and other strategies employed by company’s on their websites when announcing product recalls. Finally, apologetic rhetoric can help us discuss and suggest elements of online product recall information–such as the element of corrective action, which could be included in an online recall as an interactive method for signing up for a rebate or new part.

    As you point out, there will always be a risk of some people or companies following the letter of the theory, but not the spirit of it. In the end, I hope that apologia theory can at least provide some insights that lead us to a better use of online communication for product recall and safety information.

  2. Interesting post. What if this company took your advice to heart and began using the apologetic strategies strategically but only as a checklist, going through the motions because that’s what they’ve been instructed to do? Does it matter if the results are the same (i.e. the public trust is restored)? What are the ethical dimension to making an apology and do they matter?


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