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Local media must play a bigger role in alerting public on product recalls

by Philip Brasor

Last week, four Japanese carmakers announced a worldwide recall for vehicles with faulty airbags. According to USA Today, “Toyota, Honda and Nissan need to track down 3 million vehicles around the globe,” and with Mazda later added to the roster, the number rises to almost 3.4 million. The defect has been blamed on Takata Corporation, the Japanese company that manufactured the airbags, which may “deploy abnormally” in a collision and spray pieces of broken plastic on the front passenger-side seat. In some models, the bags don’t deploy at all. Takata’s share price dropped as much as 15 percent after the news broke, though the automakers themselves managed to escape the wrath of investors. In fact, three saw their share prices go up by 3 to 6 percent on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, despite the fact that the recalls will cost them billions of yen.

In line with the Japanese media’s unwritten policy of exercising caution when reporting stories that might reflect badly on the domestic automotive industry, the announcements were covered in a low-key fashion, as something that was mostly happening overseas. BBC News devoted several in-depth reports to the story, as did the major American news services.

On the one hand this difference in scale matched the numbers involved. The majority of the recalled vehicles were sold in North America and Europe, while in Japan 732,000 cars come under the recall. That’s still quite a few, so local news outlets, by trying not to draw too much negative attention to the recall and embarrass existing or potential sponsors, would seem to be avoiding their responsibility to provide information that is in the public interest.

Recalls are difficult processes to carry out effectively. In February, following a fire that killed four people in a Nagasaki nursing home and which was traced to a faulty humidifier, NHK ran a feature on its morning information program, “Kurashi Kaisetsu” (“Explanations for Living”). The reporter on the show pointed out that in 2006 the Consumer Product Safety Law was revised with a regulation that said manufacturers must report to the government any accidents involving their products.

Since then, the number of annual recalls has doubled, with the national Consumer Affairs Agency receiving more than 500 notifications a year. However, this information doesn’t always reach consumers. The NHK reporter said that during the course of his research he discovered that there were half a dozen items in his own home that had been the subjects of recalls in the past.

In the Nagasaki case, the humidifier, manufactured by TDK Corporation, has been on the company’s recall list since January 1991. After the defect was discovered, TDK bought advertising space in newspapers all over the country announcing a recall, but about 5,500, or a quarter of the number sold, were never returned, and it wasn’t clear whether or not those units were still in use. Even after the recall went into effect there were 43 reported cases of humidifiers catching fire.

NHK then looked at the numbers since the 2006 revision and found that the situation has improved only marginally. In 2012 alone, there were 125 cases of death or injury involving products that had been recalled but not returned.

The onus falls on manufacturers. The government has said that makers must do whatever they can to find every single product that is subject to a particular recall. In 2005, two people died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a dysfunctional water heater manufactured by Panasonic, and a recall was launched. The company bought commercial airtime on TV, complete with an apology, to inform consumers that if they had the heater in their homes they should contact relevant dealers. Panasonic also sent postcards to all buyers who had registered the purchase for the purpose of warranties, and then even pledged to buy back the units for ¥50,000 a piece. As of the beginning of this year, however, there were still 35,000 unaccounted for and possibly still in use.

Manufacturers may know who sold recalled items but not necessarily the people who bought them, so they have to resort to expensive media campaigns that are still limited in scope. In 2010, Bridgestone recalled a defective child seat for bicycles, offering replacements, cash refunds and premiums, but it had very little data on who had bought the seats so it carried out a blanket notification campaign by sending flyers to kindergartens and day-care centers all over the country. It even hired monitors to check bicycle parking lots at supermarkets in major cities to look for the products in question. The company located only half of the 1 million seats targeted by the recall.

Consumer groups believe that only the government can make a difference and have been lobbying related ministries and agencies to bolster recall efforts further. One common recommendation is to mandate retailer cooperation. The electronics discount chain Bic Camera, for instance, has customer information for 90 percent of sales thanks to its point-card system. Any item that’s subject to a recall can be referenced in the store’s database and anyone who bought it can be contacted directly. In addition, if those customers don’t respond but come in to buy something else, their presence can be flagged so that salespeople can talk to them face-to-face.

Such methods flirt with privacy issues, but in fact the main obstacle to successful recalls is public nonresponse. The Consumer Affairs Agency maintains a list of products designated for recall since 2007 on its website, but that means the public has to take the initiative and actually look at it, so in the end the media’s role in reinforcing recall efforts is indispensable. Car companies factor the cost of possible defects into their budgets and don’t lose anything but face in the event of a recall. It’s not the media’s job to help them save it.