So the big news today (I mean, besides ferry and school bus disasters, Russia’s threats to Ukraine, domestic terrorism, and the death of Gabriel Garcia Márquez) is General Mills’ sudden reversal of an announced self-proclaimed exemption from any wrong-doing, past, present, or future. Last week, the giant food processor published their new terms and conditions that if you downloaded one of their coupons, “liked” them on Facebook, “followed” them on Twitter, bought any of their products, or even ate a single Cheerio at any time in your life since you were sitting in a high chair, you waived all your rights to sue them for any harm whatever you may have, now or in the future, or in any parallel universe, possibly claim you think you may have allegedly suffered from them.
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the brilliant meeting where that policy was presented. I’m sure General Mills’ lawyers, bless their well-meaning hearts, all thought they were so clever in arc-welding together this Iron Man pre-emptive defense. Nothing could penetrate it. General Mills, if they were evil, could knowingly pour buckets of broken glass, rat poison, plutonium, and X-acto blades into their brightly colored cereal boxes (yes, yes, yes, we know they make more than cereal) and never have to worry about being sued. All because you would have waived your right to redress by simply “liking” a General Mills Facebook post. Brilliant.
Except for one thing. The law team that crafted this impenetrable body-armor forgot about the wrath of the public and the power of marketing backlash. I don’t know how many people fired in angry letters, box tops, or e-mails (I was one of them, sarcastically putting myself on the record as opting out of their can’t-sue-us agreement). But evidently it was enough for General Mills to reverse itself this morning and rescind the policy. They’re happy to accept any and all lawsuits again. Yipee!
That’s too bad, because it would have been fascinating to see how that but-you-said-you-liked-us defense would have played out in the first class action lawsuit. I’m not a lawyer, but I play one all the time, and it may be that the pre-emptive legal force field was, indeed, impenetrable. If it was, then maybe another GM should consider it.
But what isn’t impenetrable is public backlash. It’s not good for your brand to announce that you intend to be a jerk from now on. And there’s no legal defense on earth that can protect a company from falling sales due to public outrage.
This is another of many example of big brands, who should know better, forgetting the 9th Unbreakable Rule: Everything is Marketing. Even legal caveats.
I know corporate lawyers aren’t concerned with marketing. Their only concern is the protection of their client (or employer). But they really should look up from time to time and notice that occasionally the act of defense itself causes more harm that what it was intended to ward off. And General Mills has done the right thing here by putting the gun down.
Now let’s cuff ’em.