Friday 20 January 2006

The whole truth

We’ve all seen it in courtroom dramas on the TV. A witness or the accused is brought forward and swears “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. In other words they can’t lie, but also they must tell the court everything relevant to the case.

This is a critical rule for consumers as well. When we are being sold something we must be aware that the supplier has not actually sworn an oath to tell us the whole truth. It’s up to us as the consumer to act like a trial attorney and ask probing questions. The difficulty though is that sometimes we may not actually be a trial attorney with many years experience of asking probing questions. It doesn’t help either when the thing we’re buying is something complicated that we don’t understand.

Take the example of buying a car. Many of us have no idea how a car actually works. We don’t know about timing belts, differentials and electronic ignition systems. We just know that it’s a nice colour, it’s comfortable and it is easy to drive.

That’s why if we have any sense we take along someone who is an expert on cars. We all have a relative, neighbour, friend or colleague who knows about this stuff who, in return for a free drink or two, will come along with us. If by any chance you don’t know anyone you can always go to a decent garage and for a small fee they can send someone along with you.

But what about those occasions when the item we are considering is so new, so advanced and so technical that it’s unlikely that there is anyone to consult? Isn’t that the opportunity for the supplier to take advantage of their position and neglect to tell us the whole truth?

Let’s take an example. Let’s imagine a company that had a monopoly on the production and marketing of DSTV decoders as well as the TV transmissions they pick up. Imagine that they launched a new decoder that was able to do really clever things like pause live TV, to start playing again when you wanted to and that could record loads of programmes internally. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Wouldn’t we all want one?

We certainly would if it was advertised heavily on the TV, if they even devoted an entire channel to a rolling advertisement for the thing and the listings magazine was full of pictures of it.

So what’s the problem with this imaginary situation?

Well, maybe this entirely imaginary supplier is not telling the whole truth.

Maybe when you buy this device, get it home and open the box you find a piece of paper that says you need to get an entirely new subscription from the supplier. Well, maybe that’s just a technicality, it doesn’t worry you so you call them up and find that it’s not just new paperwork they want, it’s more money. Maybe they tell you that until you sign a new subscription that costs an extra P42 a month your brand new decoder will not actually do any of the things you want. You won’t be able to pause and replay, you won’t be able to do the fancy recordings you heard about. In fact you’ve just bought a new decoder that does no more than the old dusty one you have just packed away or given to your sister.

Maybe you then discover that even if you do pay the extra monthly fee, because you only have one TV in the house the thing won’t work anyway! It turns out that this fancy new thing only works if you already have a dual-view facility or if you’re prepared to have dual-view installed which will cost you P700.

Maybe, and remember that this device is purely hypothetical, you would reflect on your experience and feel that maybe you weren’t told the whole truth before you bought the thing?

So you would go back to the dedicated TV channel that markets the thing and you’d see that absolutely no mention is made of the extra monthly fee, no mention is made of the new dual-view installation and no mention is made of the new agreement you are forced to sign. You’d check the listings magazine and the frequent adverts between programmes and find the same thing.

You may also reflect on the fact that it’s a little strange to pay an extra P42 per month seeing as you’ve just spent all that money on the piece of equipment that actually does all the hard work.

You hadn’t been told the whole truth. You had been told just those truths the supplier wanted you to know before you parted with nearly P3,000. You might think that if this had happened in a court of law the supplier would have spent some time in jail for perjury, for failing to tell you the whole truth.

Of course this is all hypothetical. Surely no real supplier would get up to such dubious practices as this. Surely not!

However, if it did, what would we call this fancy new decoder? Maybe something like the Pricey Viewer Ripoff, the PVR?

This week’s stars!

  • Wayne at HiFi Corporation for giving me a full refund for a useless new decoder I bought the previous day.
  • Jean-Francois from AGS Frasers for amazing service. Apparently the guys from Frasers did everything they said they would, on time within budget and without any fuss.
  • Steven a taxi driver who not only drove our caller to Metsef very safely but when she discovered she’d come out without her purse he lent her the money to make her purchases!

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