It all started with a crushed suit, a bungled flight connection and lost seat reservations. Those incidents, which sound like a scene taken from the 1980 screwball comedy “Airplane!,” all transpired during one round-trip flight that Montreal resident Jeremy Cooperstock took between Toronto and Japan in the summer of 1996.
They were also the catalyst that led to the creation of Untied.com, a Web site that serves as a clearinghouse for complaints against Chicagobased United Airlines.
Untied.com is one of 40 so-called “protest Web sites” that Arizona State University professors Jim Ward and Amy Ostrom examined while researching the rising popularity of such grass-roots portals for complaining and their effect.
The crux of their findings, which was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research, was that growing numbers of disgruntled consumers once relegated to complaining to friends and family are taking their beefs to a mass audience using the Internet. That’s changing the balance of power between companies and their customers by giving the individual a bigger voice.
Ward said that while the sites can be a major headache for companies trying to maintain a good reputation with the public, the trend has made some more responsive to their clients.
Applying a theory usually used by sociologists called “protest-framing theory,” the two found that protest Web sites tend to use similar rhetorical tactics employed by civic or political protesters. Language and stories that invoke a sense that a great injustice was committed, stereotyping of officials as bad people, and calls for greater public outcry are common features found on protest sites.
“They feel they’ve been cheated,” Ward said. “They feel the company has broken its promise.”
Ward and Ostrom said the Web sites serve as a way for consumers to exact a sense of revenge against companies they feel committed wrongs against them and also helps to restore bruised egos.
The two educators said that the best way for firms to avoid the headaches caused by negative word of mouth is to try and address customer complaints early on.
“That’s what great companies should be striving to do,” Ostrom said.
Indeed, Cooperstock said he may have never created Untied.com had the airline addressed his concerns early on. But Cooperstock said he sent three complaint letters that resulted in a simple form letter that failed to address the thrust of his concerns.
“That’s really irritating,” he said. “Far more irritating than the initial problems we experienced.”
Ostrom and Ward said that companies may sometimes resort to intimidation tactics like threatening consumers with lawsuits. But those tactics simply confirm a disaffected customer’s suspicion that the firm doesn’t really care.
“It basically just provides this community of discontent with more ammunition,” she said.
Robin Urbanski, a United spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed when contacted about the Web site but said in an e-mail to the Tribune that “everyone is entitled to their opinion” and “customer feedback is best sent to us directly... "
Since launching Untied.com in April 1997 as a simple online soapbox where Cooperstock wrote about his negative experiences and the company’s subsequent lack of responsiveness, he said the Web site has evolved into a virtual community gathering spot for angry employees, disaffected customers and questions about the airline’s safety. Cooperstock said the site gets between 50,000 and 60,000 hits a month.
“The site has really morphed many times over the years,” he said, adding that he keeps it going through donations.