If you have been living in Spain long enough, you may have certainly heard about the “Organización de Consumidores y Usuarios”, better known as “la OCU”. Its English translation is as simple as “Organisation of Consumers and Users”.
The first remarkable feature about this organization is that it is not an organization…, or at least not in the way they pretend to be. The explanation is much simpler than it seems: The external communication strategy of the OCU is based upon making everybody believe that they are a public organization which cares about the defence of consumer rights. And we must admit that they have succeeded much more in making people believe they are a public service than in defending anything like consumer rights.
The proof of this is quite simple: you can ask any Spaniard you know about the OCU, and the response you will get will pretty much look like: “Eh… let me think, well… yeah, it is a public institution that helps us to defend our consumer rights… isn’t it?…”. Well, it is not. The OCU is a private corporation, and when I say private I mean one hundred per cent private. However, they have a Plan B for once you disappointingly find out about it. This Plan B consists of two basic messages:
1- “It is a common misunderstanding among the people to believe that we are a public service. That is why we are making a special communication effort in order for everyone to know that we are not”.
2- Once you have been able to get as far as here, you are likely to gain access to their poetic self-definition: “We are a non-profit private company”.
The true fact is that the OCU’s ordinary activities are conveniently shrouded in an aura of reliability and respectability, aura which has been achieved through an intricate long-term combination of external communication strategies, institutional relations and lobbying effervescence.
Let’s then start from the beginning: The OCU was founded in 1975 and is currently part of an international group called Euroconsumers, whose members are other similar companies from Belgium (headquarters), Italy, Portugal and Brazil. The OCU customers pay a periodic fee in return for the right to a very basic legal advice service (exclusively related to consumer issues), as well as the home-delivery of several consumer-related publications.
The afore-mentioned fact that they define themselves as a “non-profit organization (or company)” represents an additional reason to be extremely cautious about their activities. The first thing coming to many people’s minds nowadays in Spain when we think of these noble institutions who define themselves as such (non-profit) is the “Savings Banks”, those nests of vipers where both the economic and political power come together in an endless party of social plundering, to which the Judiciary and the Bank of Spain are also invited.
To put it mildly: the OCU is not a non-profit company. It is a private company whose underlying mission is to generate the highest possible revenue, which shouldn’t necessarily be perverse in itself. What is perverse, in this particular case, is to try to mislead your potential and existing customers for your own benefit.
The Internet has undoubtedly represented a very useful tool for me as regards finding out more about the “Organización de Consumidores y Usuarios”. About one decade ago, a frequent topic of conversation in on-line forums (and even in the street) was their massive spam campaigns. You did not even need to have visited their website or filled-in any somewhat related to them form to receive their intrusive visit in your e-mail account. But also their spamming was not limited to e-mail boxes: sometimes it just merrily popped up in your browser out of the blue. Later on, as this extremely aggressive spamming strategy started not only to become a counterproductive tool for their corporate reputation, but also an increasing source of legal troubles, they started to progressively reduce it.
However, there are things that do not change: their strategy to present themselves as a public service is their most powerful source of customers. And there are many people indeed who, in a naive attempt to get the support they believe to be entitled to as citizens, end up landing at the main entrance of their building, their customer care phone-number or, of course, their website. Once the bewildered newcomers are duly informed that the OCU is not a public service and that they are due to pay in exchange for the service they require, the most difficult part in the process of gaining new customers has already been accomplished.
A very relevant experiment in this respect is provided by their own website: Any troubled consumer who visits it will very easily find a contact form to fill in explaining any consumer-related issue. Once the form filled and submitted, a confirmation message is displayed on the screen saying something like: “We confirm to have successfully received your request. Our specialists will contact you as soon as possible”. When the naive consumer visits his e-mail box the day after, what he finds is an e-mail explaining him that the service he requested requires a paid subscription, for which he is kindly proposed various purchase options. On top of this, the OCU obtains the e-mail address of a potential customer who will be, from then on, a potential victim of their on-line marketing campaigns.
The question here is obvious: wouldn’t it have been better for the customer to have known from the beginning of his visit to the OCU’s website that he had to pay for the information? Furthermore, wouldn’t it have been preferable for him not to have ever had the idea that the OCU is a public institution? The response is even more obvious: it would have been better for the consumers, but not for the OCU.
But anyhow, all this long-term strategy of presenting themselves as a public service would have never succeeded without the close collaboration of the Ministry of Consumers Affairs, quite a few mass-media and different private corporations. And one of the key tools in this collaboration has been the tireless activity of the OCU’s lobbying department.
As regards the Ministry of Consumers Affairs and other relevant Public Bodies, their collaboration in the OCU’s venerable appearance of a public institution at the service of the citizenship is a result of an intricate exchange of mutual favours between senior government officials, top managers of different corporations closely linked to the OCU and the managing board of the OCU itself. Just like the rating agencies for the financial markets, the OCU is also a rating agency for a large variety of products and services of any sector, through the different market research reports they publish in their newsletter and magazines.
And the fact is that most of the conclusions they provide are as reliable as the Lehman Brothers rating the day before its downfall. Many people who know about the OCU’s internal behaviour could confirm this, but there is really no need of privileged information to this regard: anyone who has a somewhat deep knowledge of a certain sector as well as of market research techniques would laugh at the outrageously biased conclusions of many of their reports.
On the other hand, their love story with the mass-media reveals the existence of a preferential lover: Televisión Española (TVE), Spain’s national public television, financed with the taxes of all the citizens. TVE’s role here really goes much further than presenting the OCU as a public service: they also provide them prestige, reliability and, above all, free advertising spaces in the middle of the news programs that would be worth a fortune as per the market laws.
So thanks to this display of pure love, all the regular followers of TVE’s news programs have the chance of seeing Ileana Izverniceanu (member of the OCU’s lobbying department) several times per week, right in the middle of the broadcast, informing us all of something we had known for years, kind of: “the airline companies use misleading information in their advertising…” or “the Internet providers often violate the law in order to prevent their customers from deregistering…” The day will soon come when she will let us know that America has been discovered and that the Earth is round.
Being a regular follower of TVE’s news programs myself, I am often amazed at how obvious this collaboration is: If we consider a period of time of about ten days, we can easily see Ileana appear on five occasions distributed in different broadcasts. On each of those occasions she will be talking about a different topic, but all the rest does not change: her hairstyle, her clothes, her scarf around the neck, the fixed tv shot with the corporate signboard conveniently placed on the upper left side, the credits displayed: “Ileana Izverniceanu, OCU spokeswoman”… One doesn’t have to be a genius to infer that both parties meet regularly and record all the footage in one go. That recorded material contains different parts, each of which corresponds to a different consumer issue. The OCU is the one who proposes the different consumer issues that have to be dealt with at each recording session. Then it is TVE’s go to broadcast each of those episodes in different news programs in the days to come. Needless to say that one of the reasons for Ileana’s empty talk is not to bother any of the big corporations they get on so nicely with.
It is true though that the “Organización de Consumidores y Usuarios” wouldn’t have any credibility if they didn’t denounce some big company every once in a while. They do this indeed, but it is impossible to imagine a more inefficient organisation in terms of obtaining anything positive for consumers through its legal initiatives. The same thing can be said as regards the rest of services they offer to their customers:
- What are their publications useful for? Anyone can get more complete and reliable information on consumer issues through the Internet for free.
- And what to say about their legal advice service? Nowadays most home/car insurance policies offer similar advice services, with no or very little extra charge, through large law firms they have agreements with. And their counsel is not limited to consumer issues, as they can actually advise on any field of law.
Very recently I stumbled by chance upon one of the best stories I have ever heard about regarding the OCU: I was having a drink with some people, among whom there was I girl I scarcely knew. She told us she had just taken part in a recruitment process by the OCU for their marketing department. In theory they were looking for someone speaking English and French, as their condition of members of an international group seems to make that characteristic advisable. She got to the last stage of the process, during which she was in touch with the three staff members of the Human Resources department, none of whom seemed especially smart.
At one point, right before the beginning of one of the interviews, she was having a kind of informal conversation with the HR employee who was handling the process, while they waited for the arrival of the Marketing manager. What the employee told her was that although they normally required multilingual staff, most of the employees only spoke English at an intermediate level and practically no French or any other second language. This HR employee actually acknowledged her to only speak some English and just not a word of French.
It seems that the girl who told me the story had previously had the chance of confirming that, because during the different tests conforming the process they usually were in a room beside the “conference room”. As the walls did not seem to be especially thick, they all had the chance of hearing different OCU employees performing international videoconferences in the most dreadful imaginable English. Her exact words were: “they spoke so badly that my ears hurt”.
Anyway, the end of the story seemed to have been slightly upsetting for her: although she had been told all throughout the process that she would be informed of the outcome and that she was free to contact them by e-mail asking for news if she required it, they never contacted her.
She sent them an e-mail that got no reply. A couple of weeks later she tried again for the last time: same result. It seems that she got a very bad image of the company without having even required to be their customer.
But who knows, maybe Ileana would have been able to give her a convincing explanation with the OCU’s corporate sign placed right behind her right ear. Nonetheless, I am sure there is one thing Ileana will never be able to explain: who are the OCU customers supposed to turn to when they feel abused by this stinking company… Sorry, did I say “company”? I meant “organisation”.