So what if the free flight never arrives?: The Hoover hoohah shows what a sorry state consumerism is in, argues Frank Barrett

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The Independent Online
GIVEN all the outrage and indignation that has attended the Hoover promotion, you could be forgiven for thinking that the company was caught building death camps rather than getting itself into a silly mess over an offer of free flights.

The extraordinary thing about the offer is not that Hoover ever thought it would be able to cope with the demand. It is rather that, incredible though it seems, there are 200,000 people who looked at the offer - and its voluminous small print - and kidded themselves into believing they would be able to buy a vacuum cleaner for pounds 100 and obtain two free flights to Europe or the United States whenever they wanted to fly.

P T Barnum reckoned that there was a sucker born every minute. The Hoover hoohah has revealed that every cleaner seems to be sold with a sucker ready to attach itself. What the debacle really highlights is the sad state into which consumer journalism and consumerism have fallen in the Nineties.

The leader of the charge against Hoover has been the BBC television consumer programme Watchdog; following in the pack of media hounds has been the Consumers' Association. At a time of genuine consumer injustice across a huge range of areas in Britain - from homelessness or waiting lists for National Health Service hospitals to inadequate funding for state education and the running down of the railways - Watchdog is content to concern itself with exposing the Hoover offer or highlighting relatively insignificant rip-offs by vitamin retailers and solar- heating salesmen.

What makes the Hoover story so compelling to Watchdog? Its principal attraction is that it makes good television. It is quite clear who the baddies are: Hoover marketing executives. And, for the prosecution case, there are legions of sob stories: disappointed honeymooners, tearful kiddies denied trips to Disneyland, pensioners refused final meetings with distant relatives.

With this sort of material being wheeled out, the story starts to gain a significance out of all proportion to the real injustice involved. Let us remember that Hoover was misguidedly promising free flights - not undertaking to provide kidney transplants.

But with Watchdog and a growing number of national newspapers in hot pursuit, a media open season has been declared on Hoover. Matters reached an absurd level when a member of the Watchdog team went undercover and took a job with the Hoover department responsible for administering the offer. The Watchdog mole secretly taped the instructions given by Hoover to its employees that they should try to put people off taking the free flights. Apparently it was this rather unsurprising piece of evidence that ultimately secured the downfall of key Hoover UK executives this week and resulted in front-page headlines yesterday.

Hoover was wrong to offer something that it was incapable of delivering: it should have anticipated that people would buy cleaners simply to qualify for the free flights. And, certainly, the company was wrong subsequently to mess applicants around. But was this really such a terrible crime? Hoover was not manufacturing faulty electrical appliances. If Hoover was guilty of anything, it was of being too naive and then practising a little after- the-event adjustment. And now the Hoover parent company has guaranteed funds to ensure that people get their flights, the problem seems even more insignificant.

Watchdog's eagerness to use a giant investigative hammer to crack this relatively modest walnut is indicative of the sad, rudderless state of consumerism in Britain today. The decline of consumerism is usually explained by the fact that the big consumer battles have all been won. We are told that the golden age of consumerism is long past.

Indeed, it is 30 years since Ralph Nader, the American consumer campaigner, single-handedly battled the US car manufacturers for safer automobiles. And the roaring fires of righteousness, which inspired Consumers' Association campaigns in the Sixties and Seventies to right a wide range of wrongs from dangerous electrical appliances to unfair contract terms, appear to have almost burnt out.

We are asked to believe that, one by one, the dragons of consumer injustice have been slain. Buy a new television set today and you can be almost 100 per cent sure that it will work perfectly when you get it home - and if it doesn't work or breaks down, you can take it back and expect a replacement or a full refund.

While it is undeniably a safer world for the buyers of televisions and fridges, consumers are having a much less happy time in other areas. Why does my nine-year- old daughter have to share her tiny state- school classroom with 35 other children? Why does my neighbour have to wait two years for an operation? Why is the council closing its old people's homes? Why has my rail fare to London more than doubled in 10 years while the journey time has in effect increased by 30 minutes?

All these are consumer matters just as surely as faulty fridges or non-available Hoover flights - and are much more significant to our daily lives. But where is the media outrage with its front-page headlines? Where are the Watchdog secret cameras and the doorstepping reporters?

Education or health issues do not have the allure of the Hoover story, which you can encapsulate in a 10-minute report. Expose the Hoover affair one week, and it's solved the next. Simple and easy: good triumphs over evil.

But could it also be that the predominantly middle-class media with its Bupa policies and easy-payment plans for school fees has no big grievances left to settle? From where it sits, the world looks a fine place. The Consumers' Association was - and still is - a middle-class affair; in the Sixties, after all, only the well-off could afford colour televisions and freezers and have the luxury of complaining about them when they broke down.

Judging from the case histories reported in the pages of the Consumers' Association Which? magazine, its readers are now a national army of Victor Meldrews: continually angry with plumbers, perpetual victims of smooth-talking double-glazing retailers and regular dupes of glib timeshare salesmen. Urged on by the articulate carpings of the Meldrew army, which stands secure in its middle-class laagers Which? and Watchdog are happy to cuff the ears of the small-time operators while bigger issues remain untackled.

Ever since the days of Chaucer, when hucksters made a living from selling fake religious relics to the gullible, Britain has had a robust tradition of sales trickery. The best defence to this has always been: caveat emptor] This isn't good enough for the wrathful Victor Meldrews with their pounds 100 cleaners still unused in their boxes. Screw the real problems of this world, they say - all they want to know is: where's my free flight?