Public humiliation defeats stubborn gym

dumbells Charlotte Snowden/Press Association Images

Anyone who has ever signed up for a gym and then lost enthusiasm within weeks will realise just how impossible it is to wriggle out of a contract. One gym member faced unemployment, she was pregnant, and was about to move 12 miles from her nearest gym, yet LA Fitness refused to cancel her two-year verbal contact.

Then she employed a new and valuable weapon in her fight against the charges - public humiliation.

Dire circumstances

Hannah, from Billericay in Essex first contacted the Guardian in December 2011. She and her husband had been members for seven years, but after her husband lost his job they were on state benefits and could not afford their gym membership.

She had written to the gym, and sent the letter from her husband's former employer showing he had been let go. However, because the letter didn't state he had been made redundant, they insisted that the couple paid the remaining 15 months of the contract, at a cost of £780.
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Hannah's pregnancy didn't cut any ice either, as she was told it simply allowed her to freeze her membership for the duration of her pregnancy, and that after the nine months she would still need to pay for another 15 months.

And because the couple were only moving 12 miles from their nearest gym, that wasn't a valid reason for cancellation - as they would need to be 20 miles away to qualify for cancellation.

Fight-back

The newspaper lobbied on her behalf, but after six weeks of pressure the best it would offer was a reduction in the outstanding amount to £360. This, Hannah explained, was still more than the couple could afford.

However, when her letter was published it sparked an outcry. The story then hit Twitter, and the anger built. A number of people offered to pay the outstanding amount, while some even cancelled their own contracts in support. At this point the newspaper contacted LA Fitness, and it agreed to waive the fees.

Back down

It issued a statement saying: "Having reviewed the case in question, we appreciate that this is a unique situation and that the couple are undoubtedly going through a very difficult and distressing time. We appreciate that their circumstances have changed dramatically since they first signed with us, and on this occasion we will waiver any further membership fees with immediate effect."

New powers

It just goes to show two things. The first is that we need to be very careful about contracts we enter into. If there's anything untoward in the contract, the time to spot it is before you sign it, so you can ether negotiate with the salesperson or walk away.

If you are being offered a verbal contract, this is no good at all. You need to see what is being agreed in black and white.

The second thing is the power of the media - especially social media. Big brands follow what is being said about them online. Some will even contact you direct if you mention a problem you are having with the company on Twitter or Facebook. They are well aware that one disgruntled customer can easily turn into thousands and then tens of thousands if they have enough followers and are angry enough.

We no longer have to write to traditional media and hope the experts can negotiate for us, we can take the matter into our own hands, and build the kind of public humiliation that causes brands to think twice about treating you badly.

Hannah from Billericay should be an example to us all - of just how much noise we can make when we try - and how much big brands are forced to sit up and listen when we do.
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