Consumer Rip-Off

The Coca-Cola Refresh and Recharge N500 million sales promotion ended in controversy and in defiance of a directive by consumer watchdog, the Consumer Protection Council, CPC, that the promo be halted. The CPC had alleged fraud. The Nigeria Bottling Company plc, organisers of the promo, could not, in response to an enquiry from this magazine, offer an estimate of how much of the promo sum was won, disclose names of winners nor confirm there were winners of fat denominations worth of recharge cards, the main prize.

On Monday 4 August 2008, at about 11.30 am, CPC officials, assisted by armed policemen, had stormed the plant of the Nigeria Bottling Company plc, NBC, producers of the Coca-Cola non-alcoholic beverage, in Jabi, Abuja. The CPC team said they were at the plant to investigate NBC’s claims and examine its products – Coca-Cola, Fanta and Sprite – as regards its Refresh and Recharge promo.

Initially, NBC’s officials resisted the CPC team whom they attempted to prevent from entering the plant. But superior muscle-flexing from the accompanying policemen prevailed. After an examination of some products, the CPC officials impounded 10,800 crates of a mix of products bearing Refresh and Recharge corks. They also seized over 140,000 unused corks bearing the promo logo and observed, among the inspected crates, some 10,438 batches stamped with the year 2009 production. The plant manager, Mr. Tunde Solaja, explained that the dates found on green plastic tags attached to the crates did not refer to the date of manufacture, although they clearly read “production date” “They were for internal use for tracking,” Solaja explained. CPC’s Director of Surveillance and Enforcement who led the team, Mr. Fred Ifechi, informed journalists that the inspection became necessary in the wake of persistent complaints on what was alleged to be the dubious nature of the promotion. Ifechi disclosed that the CPC, acting on the complaints, directed the NBC to stop marketing products wearing the Refresh and Recharge corks, and by implication, the promo itself. But the bottling giant, the consumer protectionist alleged, flouted the directive and did nothing to prove its honesty, transparency and sincerity.CPC’s Director-General, Mrs. Ify Umenyi, in a statement issued on 22 July, described the promotion as “fraudulent and a rip-off on the finances of innocent consumers.” But retorting in a public notice on 27 July, NBC maintained that its promo was in order. “We take exception to the language and the tone of the various articles which have been attributed to the representatives of the Consumer Protection Council. We have complied and would continue to comply with all the applicable laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and wish to state that we reserve the right to take necessary action to protect the reputation of our respective companies,” the company reacted.

It was interesting that the NBC flexed muscles with the CPC and ensured the promo and the adverts on it ran their full course, despite the halt order. Ifechi blurted out: “As the agency charged with the responsibility of protecting the rights of consumers in all areas of products and services, we cannot remain indifferent to this seeming exploitation of innocent consumers. This is more so that Section 12(b) of the Consumer Protection Act No. 66 of 1992 makes it an offence punishable for any person to contravene the Act. We discovered that consumers were having problems redeeming the reward, if any. Consumers have complained severally on their inability to access the rewards of the promo, even when they ended up spending so much money in the process. To the best of our knowledge, no consumer has won more than N40 in this promo. This is a complete fraud.”

Ifechi added that the NBC management failed to secure the approval of the country’s telecommunications regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, before embarking on a promotion that was supposed to involve all the telecoms operators in Nigeria. The NCC, he said, has denied knowledge of any collaboration between the soft drinks brewers and the telecom firms on the promo.

But Mr. Femi Adelusi, Media Manager for Coca-Cola, told TheNEWS last Wednesday that the NBC duly secured the approval for the contentious promo before it took off. Coca-Cola’s Nigeria Director of Public Affairs and Communications, Mrs. Irene Uba, also told journalists that the NBC wrote to the NCC to get approval for the use of a four-digit text code. Uba noted that complaints over the promo could have arisen through no fault or design of the organisers. She cited an instance when the company investigated an alleged fraud in which a consumer, one Priscilla, claimed she was a victim, The investigation unearthed the fact that her text message was not delivered to her box, Uba narrated. More often than not, some consumers, she said, text in the wrong numbers.

The GSM-based Refresh and Recharge promotion commenced on 1 June 2008 and ran for three months. The organisers, from the outset, announced a helpline, 070026532653, where participating consumers could call in with their enquiries or report any difficulty they may encounter in the course of the promotion. The helpline opened daily between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The CPC, however, insisted that one helpline was grossly inadequate for such a promotion, as it was bound to expose aggrieved consumers to spending more money and stress.

Umenyi dismissed NBC’s “attempt at shifting the problems encountered by consumers in redeeming their rewards to the usual network congestion” as untenable. The NCC, she said, had banned some telecoms operators from engaging in sales promotions due to similar problems associated with network congestion. A nutritional company like the NBC, she stressed, can not claim ignorance about it.

The face-off between the CPC and the NBC over the Coca-Cola Refresh and Recharge promo has reawakened widespread reservations and allegations of fraud that have always attended promos in the country. Cynics believe that it is either winners in some promos are predetermined, prizes are never redeemed, half of the sums advertised as dedicated to prizes are never spent or people are bribed to pose as winners. The CPC has warned consumers to beware of such promotions that are organised mainly to fleece them.

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