A Consumer Generated Media Nightmare: When A Gripe Site Is Manipulated By A Competitor

This growing issue gets me so hopped up my blood is boiling as I write this.

Everyone agrees that customers have the right to publish complaints, concerns, and other experiences online–it is called the first amendment and in legal terms it is frequently refe

rred to as Fair Use, as in the fair use of a trademark.

In fact, it is often legal to use a registered trademark in the domain name of a gripe site as a legitimate non-commercial use. But what happens when the gripe site is used for commercial purposes? What happens when the gripe site is used for the commercial purposes of a direct competitor?

Before I unload I want you to note this URL:

http://www.budgettruck.com/Home.aspx?partnerid=242

On to the research. The screenshot below illustrates the Google results for the search “Uhaul.” I have highlighted two gripe sites that have prominent visibility on U-Haul’s brand real estate in Google.

uhaul A Consumer Generated Media Nightmare: When A Gripe Site Is Manipulated By A Competitor

The fourth result is a U-Haul gripe site using the domain www.dontuseuhaul.com, a trademarked domain. The domain was registered in August of 2003 and provides information on how to file a complaint, how to file a lawsuit, a forum for customers to share their experiences, and a page to buy anti-U-Haul bumper stickers.

What immediately caught my attention was a banner ad on the left sidebar for Budget Truck Rental. The ad states “Click Here For Quote.” Hmmm… that doesn’t look right, I thought to myself.

Below is a screenshot for the website www.dontuseuhaul.com. Note the Budget Truck Rental banner on the lower left.

dont use uhaul A Consumer Generated Media Nightmare: When A Gripe Site Is Manipulated By A Competitor

Upon clicking the banner I find myself on a Budget Truck Rental page. Here is the URL and a screenshot of the page. Does the URL look familiar?

budget truck affiliate A Consumer Generated Media Nightmare: When A Gripe Site Is Manipulated By A Competitor

The fifth result is a U-Haul gripe site published by an individual who had a bad customer experience with U-Haul back in 2001. The domain is www.clanboyd.info, a non-trademarked domain. The individual, Richard Boyd, shares his experience and letters he sent to U-Haul leadership. I spoke with Richard on the phone, and I admit I am surprised that U-Haul has alledgedly not contacted him to resolve this ongoing issue in the last six years.

The initial reason I called Richard was to ask him why there is a Budget Truck Rental and a Penske Truck Rental banner on his gripe site. Let’s take a look at the screenshot below.

boycott uhaul A Consumer Generated Media Nightmare: When A Gripe Site Is Manipulated By A Competitor

Richard confided to me that he is paid an annual fee to place the advertisements–and his sentiment was why the hell not, U-Haul is ignoring him. Incidentally, the Penske Truck Rental banner does not lead to the Penske web page. Both banners lead to a Budget Truck Rental page.

Here is the URL and screenshot of that page. Does this look familiar?

budget truck affiliate A Consumer Generated Media Nightmare: When A Gripe Site Is Manipulated By A Competitor

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the Budget Truck Rental URL is an affiliate–an agent compensated to generate business for Budget Truck Rental.

With my discoveries I was compelled to investigate a little more. Could there be additional U-Haul gripe sites with Budget Truck Rental ads?

A little more searching brought me to the website www.uhaul-sucks.com. Again, another trademarked website engaging in commercial use for a direct competitor of U-Haul. Here is the screenshot.

uhaul sucks1 A Consumer Generated Media Nightmare: When A Gripe Site Is Manipulated By A Competitor

As you can see, there is another Budget Truck Rental advertisement. Can you guess which page it took me to? You got it, it’s the same affiliate link to a Budget Truck Rental page.

In all, I found a total of six U-Haul gripe sites with the same ads to Budget Truck Rental, five of them illegally using the U-Haul trademark in their domains.

Budget isn’t off the hook either. They are aware of the traffic and conversions emanating from the U-Haul gripe sites. Their conduct is appalling and they should immediately terminate this affiliate and compensate U-Haul for any verifiable business generated.

UPDATE 10-05-2007: It has been brought to my attention that Budget Truck Rental was completely unaware of this activity until reading this article. It was unfair of me to assert that they actually track website traffic and conversions, and I apologize for not validating my claim. From Corporate Communications Director, Kevin Meyer:

“The same day we contacted the operators of the sites and instructed them to remove all advertisements and links to Budget Truck from their sites immediately. To date, we received neither response nor action from either operator.”

“Yesterday, we informed the third-party agent that provided the links that we are terminating our contract with them. We are also amending our standard agreement for this type of service to prevent a similar issue from occurring in the future.”

“We hope this clarifies the situation. We also request that you either remove or amend your blog to portray this situation accurately. In the future, we would appreciate the opportunity to assist you the next time you have a question or concern about our business practices.”

Personally, I am curious why Budget Truck Rental has yet to ask me about the additional three websites doing the same thing (as I stated earlier in the article)–of course, their analytics program already displays this data… icon wink A Consumer Generated Media Nightmare: When A Gripe Site Is Manipulated By A Competitor

“From a legal standpoint, what are U-Haul’s options?”

I posed this question to New York trademark litigator, Ronald Coleman. Coleman is an expert in this area of law and is also the author of Likelihood of Confusion, a popular blog discussing trademark, copyright, new media and free speech issues. Here is his response:

“The issue is really tricky, because the courts have been reluctant, under the gripe-site cases, to enjoin third-party trademark use for legitimate commentary. On the other hand, they have been somewhat skeptical – though the cases are not really clear or consistent, even internally, on this – of competitors using trademarks to “divert” traffic. In fact, the problem here is that “diversion” is a very dubious legal theory, because it “diverts” attention from the fact that there is virtually never bona fide consumer confusion, nor a likelihood of it, in these situations. Likelihood of confusion was once considered the sine qua non of trademark infringement, but since the rise of the Internet, judges have conveniently ignored it when, in their view, an injustice is being done.

Having said all that, U-Haul has no choice but to sue Budget and see how it falls out.”

I believe we are entering a very dark period of the web, folks. The vitriol and deceit of political players and media in the U.S. is trickling down to the culture of business. In my work I have identified and helped prosecute businesses that fabricate consumer generated media and promote malicious falsehoods against competitors in the guise of an abused customer or industry expert. Some of them are dumb enough to publish links to their competing sites.

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