We talk about a lot of ads and other media that require action from consumers for their messages to change for the better. But when we say “complain to the company”, what does that really mean? 

A lot of us here at About-Face used to think about what we’d say for so long that we’d never write the complaint. A lot of people don’t know what to say to these companies. Here are some tips.

Opening paragraph

Most of our tips relate to either a carefully worded e-mail or a page-long paper letter. But the guidelines apply to any type of communication, like a phone call or a social media post, too.

  • Say why you’re writing, and specify the ad or other media (use the name of the ad if you know it)
  • Write one VERY SHORT sentence about your problem with the commercial or ad
  • Briefly say what your action is going to be (see below)

Following paragraphs

  • Go into more detail about why the ad is problematic for you, for society, for women, for men, for people of color, or whomever. Be productive and descriptive. Do not say “I think” or “I believe” or “I feel” — be strong! Do not go off on a rant, even if you are angry. Rant, and the company will not read your letter or take it seriously.
  • Say again what your action will be. Always say you will not buy their product until the ad is “pulled” (no longer published, on a video site, on TV, etc.). Even if you were not a customer before, tell them you were a formerly loyal customer. If you’re planning to stage a direct action or protest, say that, but don’t state the date.
  • State what the company will need to do to earn your business back. Do you want them to issue an apology in a press release? Pull the ad from TV/radio or a web site, or take the billboard down?
  • Tell the offending company you will spread the word to other customers and to all your friends and acquaintances. 

Sign your real name and write your city and state below your name.

Take more advanced action

If you have more time and/or incredible amounts of ire about your ad/media, here are more steps you can take that will make a difference:

  • Send the letter/e-mail to the agency that created the ad. Find out who the marketing or advertising agency was that was hired to make the ad for the company (look at AdAge’s web site or do a web search), and send them the letter as well. Understand that the advertiser (company whose products are being sold) made the final decisions about the ad, but the agency suggested the images, text, and style of the ad. 
  • Send it to the outlet that showed it in the first place. If the ad was on TV, send a letter to the TV station or cable channel, and specify the date you saw the ad and what show was on. Similarly, if the ad was in a magazine or another printed format, pull out the ad and mail it to the magazine with your letter. Take a photo of the billboard and send it to them. Send it to the editor-in-chief and also the sales director. 
  • Post a flyer on or near the local retail store of the business that details the problems with the ad. Again, use productive communication.
  • Use more modes of communication. Post about it on social media and tag/mention the company, and ask your friends to share. Make a phone call to the company and/or your local news, and send a real, paper letter to the company’s CEO, too (not just an e-mail). The more ways you communicate, the better the chances the company’s leadership will see it.
  • Send your letter in an e-mail to all your friends, share it on social media, and urge your friends/family to take action too. It can be hard to do this, but often worth the risk. They can use your letter or learn how to write their own.

When you’re done

Once you write your extremely clear, pointed letter, just save a copy and change it a little each time you come across media that irks you. Make it easy for yourself to write these suckers!

Why complain in the first place?

Here’s why: It makes a difference, even if you never get a response. When a company’s sales go down, the people at the company wonder why that’s happening. You want to hit them over the head with a well-written hint so they will change their tactics.

And remember that consumers have the most power over companies, since, as a for-profit corporation, their only real concern is — duh — profits and making money. When we don’t buy the products, the companies have less money and thus less advertising power. And, when you raise a stink (even a little stink), companies get humiliated, which is usually the only way to get them to change.

Go get ’em!