Prof Positive

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That's not wholly accurate -- but there are some curious aspects about how Video Professor divulges some key facts. People ordering off the Internet have to go through a two-step process to obtain discs, and the site won't complete the transaction until users click a box stating that they've read text in a pop-up entitled "How It Works." (Brady acknowledges that, "like many busy people," he checked the box without so much as scanning what he refers to as "the fine print.") These passages say that customers can keep two of the three discs sent to them, but individuals who don't want to be charged the full price must call an 800 number within ten days to notify the company that they'll return one. (This differs from the TV offer, in which customers receive one disc rather than three and can return it for a shipping refund.) Consumers who don't get in touch are automatically charged for the full set after ten days and are enrolled in a "review" program. "Every five weeks you will continue learning," the "How It Works" section states, "by automatically receiving other Video Professor subjects you have probable interest in, billed on the exact same terms as your first shipment."

The logic behind the subscription offer is a bit dubious: Why would a person who wanted to learn Microsoft PowerPoint be eager to tackle, say, Corel WordPerfect the next month? But Olson maintains that customers can halt the program at any juncture, and emphasizes that every phone call that comes into Video Professor is recorded, to be certain that operators aren't drifting off script and upselling customers -- i.e., convincing them to go beyond the minimum freebie proposition -- by using ambiguous language or other unethical procedures.

Olson grants that Video Professor had an "unsatisfactory" rating with the Better Business Bureau a few years back, but he says that was because the BBB didn't really "understand" their business. Following meetings with bureau personnel to educate them on their approach, Video Professor signed up as a member last year, and lo and behold, the rating is now "satisfactory." The number of complaints looks hefty -- 574 in the last three years, 118 in the past twelve months -- but each one has either been straightened out or, in BBB parlance, the company has made a "good faith effort" to resolve the situation. Olson puts the complaints at three-tenths of a percent of total shipments and sales.

One reason this total is so low, Scherer says, is because he instructs his employees to do whatever they can to avoid conflicts with customers. "We just keep refunding people forever. If you bought our product three years ago and weren't really happy about it but waited that long to contact us, we'll refund the money. Why fight over it?"

Of course, Video Professor execs are willing to scrap when they feel their rights have been violated. "We have brought lawsuits based on intellectual-property violations," says VP general counsel Susan Gindin. "If you don't take action, you really lose the effectiveness of your trademark."

Currently, Gindin is pursuing legal remedies against two companies. The most recent involves Albany, New York's Adirondack Manufacturing Corporation, which at one time was a Video Professor affiliate; by licensing agreement, Adirondack owner Chuck Price received a percentage of any Video Professor sale he made from his website. This relationship was severed, Gindin says, when Price purchased Google keywords in violation of the pact. Afterward, VP minions Googled the words "Video Professor" and scored a hit with ProWebPromotions.com, which Price owns. Today the site is quite benign, but Gindin says that at one time, it disparaged Video Professor with comments from "J. Steven Wilson," a so-called senior reviewer who urged customers not to be fooled by "self-proclaimed TV Guru's" [sic] and then herded visitors to a second Price site selling competing computer tutorials. She adds that Price directly copied the privacy policy and terms of use from Video Professor's website, right down to a sentence stating "that any lawsuit brought would be in Colorado." The line turned out to be prescient: Papers have been filed in Denver District Court.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts