Grocery titan General Mills says it has heard, loud and clear, consumers' displeasure with its new legal terms and so has reverted to its old terms.
"Those [new] terms—and our intentions—were widely misread, causing concern among consumers," Kristie Foster, General Mills' director of external communications, said in an April 19 blog post.
General Mills had sought to direct all disputes with customers away from courts and juries and instead to arbitrators. But also incendiary were the terms around what might disqualify customers from entering arbitration.
The New York Times brought the policy changes to the public's attention, writing in an April 16 article, "General Mills … has quietly added language to its Website to alert consumers that they give up their right to sue the company if they download coupons, 'join' it in online communities like Facebook, enter a company-sponsored sweepstakes or contest, or interact with it in a variety of other ways."
Foster insisted, "At no time was anyone ever precluded from suing us by purchasing one of our products at a store or liking one of our Facebook pages. That was either a mischaracterization—or just very misunderstood."
She added, "Not that any of that matters now."
With large enterprises dedicating increasing resources and percentages of budgets to social media—according to Google's Wildfire, 45 percent of $1 billion-plus companies have 50 or more employees dedicated to social media—anything that might scare away consumers from General Mills' social-media efforts could significantly affect its bottom line.
Regarding its hopeful move toward arbitration, Foster wrote, "We rarely have disputes with customers—and arbitration would have simply streamlined how complaints are handled. Many companies do the same, and we felt it would be helpful."
However, Foster offered no clarification of what had been "misunderstood" about General Mills' intentions when it brought up coupons, contests and online communities within the context of arbitration.
"We're sorry we even started down this path. … We also hope that you'll continue to download product coupons, talk to us on social media, or look for recipes on our Websites," she added.
General Mills has won points with some consumers for responding quickly. But others are doubtful that the changes reflect a change of heart, rather than just a savvy ear to the social media wall.
"Forced arbitration clauses cause lots of people to give up valid legal claims—that's the whole point of them," wrote one commenter on the General Mills blog. "So, while it's perhaps commendable that you buckled to public pressure, you seem to have done so only because you're afraid of bad publicity—not because you actually understand the issue or want to do the right thing."
Another wrote, "The reason General Mills changed its policy is not because it was 'widely misunderstood,' but because it was understood only too well."
A third added, "I hope you are rewarded with increased sales. I do love Cheerios!"
In recent years, suits against General Mills have included a challenge to General Mills' claim that its Natural Valley granola bars are "100 percent natural" (they contain genetically modified ingredients, high-fructose corn syrup, high maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin); a challenge to claims made on packaging for its Yoplait Greek yogurt ("Yoplait Greek is neither authentic Greek yogurt, nor yogurt at all," stated a court document); and a challenge against its Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups, which don't contain strawberries.