How to Write a Complaint Letter About an Ad

On the About-Face web site (that is, on this blog and elsewhere on our site), we talk about a lot of ads and other media that require action from consumers. But when we say “write a letter or e-mail,” what does that really mean? I used to think about what I would say for so long that I’d never write the letters. Those days are over for me, but a lot of people don’t know what to say to these companies. Here are some tips. For an example, check out the comments in the Dairy Queen post.

(If you’ve written a particularly good complaint letter that follows these suggestions, please post it in the comments below!)

How to Write an Effective Complaint Letter about an Ad or Other Media
Opening paragraph

  • Say why you’re writing. 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 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 whatever. 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. You will be dismissed as a crazy person if you do rant, and the company will not read your letter or take it seriously.
  • Tell them again what your action will be. Always say you will not buy their product until the ad is “pulled” (no longer published, 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 protest, say that, but don’t state the date.
  • State what the company will need to do to earn your business back. Issue an apology in a press release? Pull the ad from TV/radio or magazines, or take the billboard down?
  • Tell the offending company you will spread the word to other customers and to all your friends and acquaintances. Then go send your letter in an e-mail to all your friends, post it on your MySpace or Facebook page, etc. and urge your friends/family to take action too.
  • 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 ad agency that created the ad. Find out who the agency was and send them the letter as well. Do not call them. Why? The advertiser (company whose products are being sold) made the final decisions about the ad’s content. It’s hard to tell how much was the advertiser’s doing and how much was the agencies’.
  • Use more modes of communication. Make phone calls and write a real, paper letter too (not just an e-mail). Media outlets pay attention to this stuff!
  • Send it to the editorial body. 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, pull out the ad and mail it to the magazine with your letter. Send it to the editor-in-chief and also the sales director. (When I was a magazine editor, our readers opinions mattered more than you want to know.)
  • Post a flyer on or near the local retail store of the business that details the problems with the ad. Again, use productive communication.

When you’re done
Once you write your super-cool, pointed letter, just save a copy and change it a little each time you come across an ad. 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 hint so they will change their tactics. Also, remember that consumers have the most power over companies, since, as a for-profit corporation, their main concern is — duh — profits. 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 humilated, which is usually the only way to get them to change.

Again, I hope you’ll post your greatest letter in the comments below. And let us know other tips that have worked for you!

– J. B.

6 thoughts on “How to Write a Complaint Letter About an Ad

  1. I really need your help! All help is welcome, in fact! I am brazilian, I am proud of my country, proud of many woman that made history showing their gifts without being appelative (Pagu, Clarice Lispector, Leila Diniz, Fernanda Montenegro, Astrud Gilberto, etc). But I am also sad about the problems of my country, as any country in this world has and I am also tired of brazilian woman that think only about their appearance and whose that don’t care do be “gringo souvenirs”.

    I really love this website, and I’d like to show here my indignation towards this ridiculous ad:
    Many woman in the blogosphere showed their ire towards this. It is offending. It hurts. It only make stereotipes grow even more.

    Please, help me! Help brazilian woman. Some of us don’t even know about this ad, because they can’t read in english or just because they don’t know about it. But I am sure that these girls will suffer the consequences of this stereotype when a tourist visits here.

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