The Power of the Net

Back to Contents of Issue: December 1999

Is Toshiba to Blame?

by Kyoko Fujimoto

In July this year, a personal site set up on Nifty Serve received over a million hits. From July 11 to 17, the URL held steady as one of the top five sites accessed from both home and office on Nikkei BP's weekly rankings. At almost the same time, one Web page on the Toshiba Japan site was also receiving lots of attention. What was the fuss about?

It seems that a Toshiba customer (his identity remains anonymous, although several websites have reportedly revealed his real name) had bought a VCR, but the device failed to live up to his expectations. He brought it back to the store for repair, but was still not satisfied. Mr. X contacted Toshiba customer support several times, but the problem was not solved, and some of the support reps began using quite rude language. Increasingly frustrated, and feeling that he was being grossly mistreated, Mr. X decided to tape the conversation with the Toshiba service rep during the next phone call. As expected, the Toshiba staffer let loose with a stream of invective, which was promptly converted to audio file format and posted on the Nifty site. Based on the conversation (the audio file has since been removed), it was obvious that Toshiba thought Mr. X was a nuisance customer and treated him as such. The service rep was heard plainly telling Mr. X that Toshiba really didn't regard him as a customer.

The Nifty website was publicized on numerous BBSs and e-zines starting in June, and other media (newspapers, magazines) picked it up in July. At the peak, Mr. X's site was receiving several hundred thousand hits per day, and public reaction in this country of bureaucratic micromanagement was almost universal in its condemnation of Toshiba. The whole episode quickly turned into a PR nightmare for Toshiba, with numerous angry Web postings supporting the little guy -- and his use of the Net -- in his fight for consumer justice.

Realizing that the Nifty website was getting so much attention and sympathy, Toshiba was forced in late July to make a public apology and the company paid a visit to Mr. X in his Kyushu home to apologize for their rep's rude language and to discuss an amicable settlement. With Toshiba's apparent capitulation, many pundits proclaimed that the age of Internet empowerment had arrived.

The story, however, was not so cut and dried. In late August, one popular weekly magazine disclosed that Mr. X is one of a small fringe of frequent complainers who make it their business to extract as much apology money as they can from giant corporations sensitive to their public image. The magazine related a similar case with Mr. X, but this time involving Fujitsu, and pointed out that Mr. X's original complaint with Toshiba was based on a minor failing in the VCR that didn't affect the device's primary functioning.

In the Toshiba case, it doesn't matter who's to blame. What's significant was Toshiba's (and other major corporations') total underestimation of the power of the Net. Corporate management and PR drones were fully aware of the Nifty website, but dismissed its ability to rally public sympathy. Once traditional media picked up the issue, the fire was out of control and Toshiba got its fingers seriously singed.

In addition, the incident starkly illustrates how new media in Japan -- as in other countries -- is giving individuals extraordinary power to reach the masses. With the Internet, anyone can pretend to be a journalist. Unfortunately, the masses here appear to be as unable as their Western counterparts to distinguish between commentary, opinion, fact, and lies. The lesson? People can and will write anything they like and try to influence the audience. Readers, therefore, have to be objective and skeptical, and see issues as they are -- and not rely totally on any one writer's opinions.

In the meantime, the Toshiba incident has faded from public radar screens, but Mr. X continues to update his website. As of October 19, he was defending himself against allegations that he's tried returning numerous other purportedly defective items (his splash page displays a recent sales receipt to "prove" that he still has the devices), and the access counter -- perhaps sadly-read 387,708.

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