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17 September 2023

The Vanilla Vigilante is suing capitalism, one product at a time

The lawyer Spencer Sheehan has filed hundreds of cases against companies that, he says, misrepresent their products.

By Will Dunn

Spencer Sheehan was in high school when he realised that being a consumer involves a long series of little injustices, which no one person could ever have the time to pursue – a lifetime of trivial rip-offs and misrepresentations for which, he discovered, it was “almost impossible to get any sort of answer or relief or explanation”.

Sheehan is 44, unmarried, “no kids, no pets”, the grandson of Polish Jews who emigrated after the Second World War. He lives in Great Neck, New York, where the cult comedian Andy Kaufman grew up. Kaufman’s act made fun of the world with subterfuge, disguises, mock fights; it was all fake, and that was the joke. For years after his death in 1984, Kaufman’s fans maintained he would return to announce that that too had been a gag, but he never materialised for the punchline. Sheehan’s response to society’s pretences is different. When someone complains to Spencer Sheehan that the world is lying to them, he listens, he investigates, and he takes it to court.

He studied at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities, receiving a master’s degree in international relations. He was a member of the Marines Corps Reserves, but he wants to be clear about how authentic his experience of the marines was. “I want to emphasise that I did not go overseas,” he tells me, “lest anybody think I’m making a claim of stolen valour.”

It took him a long time to find a career that was authentic to him: “Some people… they know, they want to be a journalist, or maybe an architect – I never really had that.” After university, he went to law school. “I didn’t enjoy it,” he says. His classmates wanted to defend the environment or represent Hollywood stars, but there was no part of the law that jumped out at him as the right path.

His long-held interest in the misconduct of companies against consumers wasn’t answered by the niceties of corporate law: he remembers sitting in a class that covered reforming payday loan regulations, and wondering why they were discussing the subject at all, when clearly the problem was that working people had to use the loans in the first place. “That whole discussion seemed totally academic… a waste.”

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Then, as he was preparing for the bar exam, Sheehan heard about a company – a music-streaming service, one of the precursors to Spotify – that was overcharging its customers. That interested him. He investigated the case and worked with a law firm to file it. Over the next few years his legal work varied, but he kept feeling that itch to correct the little untruths that companies hand out so readily.

In 2016 he was approached by someone who worked in the fruit-juice business. All those “raw” juices that people were buying, drawn in by the suggestion that it was just fruit in a bottle – it wasn’t true, exactly. All “raw” meant was that it hadn’t been pasteurised: they were still sterilised, processed products. He filed the case himself: first one, then a few more.

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After the juice companies came a supermarket whose “onion snacks” – advertised by a moustachioed green onion – contained a dusting of real onion, and a manufacturer whose “strawberry” and “chocolate fudge” products contained no strawberries and none of the essential ingredients of fudge. He has litigated over the authenticity of mayonnaise and the cheese content of pizza rolls.  

Since 2017 he has filed hundreds of claims against companies for the way in which they sell their products – food, cosmetics, over-the-counter medications, consumer electronics, credit cards, clothing.

When a local newspaper covered a series of lawsuits filed by Sheehan which alleged that yoghurt, oat milk, ice cream, fizzy drinks and other products sold as “vanilla” flavour were in fact flavoured by petrochemical flavourings, the headline read: “Vanilla Vigilante”. The page hangs, framed, on the wall behind him as we talk.

I ask Sheehan why he takes these cases: is he motivated by a sense of injustice? Or does he see an opportunity to make some money?

[See also: Corinne Bailey Rae’s radical return]

He does not seem at all offended by the question. He says he’s not really motivated by money, nor does he see himself as a crusader. “The word ‘injustice’ is too strong, I think, to describe how I feel… I go to a restaurant and, you know, the chair’s not straight, or it wobbles a little bit, or when they bring you a drink – they never bring you those cocktail napkins? – things just bother me.”

Perhaps you don’t think it’s important if a yoghurt contains real vanilla, or if your beef crisps don’t contain any beef, or if your “truffle”-flavoured delicacy is actually flavoured with something that was originally crude oil. In each case, it doesn’t, but it all adds up to something more important: a mass sense of dislocation, unreality and mistrust.

This has been going on for a long time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Rousseau and Hegel began to form theories of “alienation” – the separation of the self from its true nature by the world, society and its structures. In 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote about the alienating power of religion. Instead of celebrating their own virtues, Feuerbach wrote, religion required people to praise those qualities as if they were held by an imagined supernatural being.

Marx and Engels took up the idea of alienation: it was the central characteristic not only of the old religious society but also of the new, capitalist society. Capitalism took away those things that were fundamental to a person (their intelligence and skill, their bonds with other people, their time) and sold them back in a way that was changed (wages, consumer products).

Marx used the world entfremdung, or estrangement, to describe the weird world money creates. In a capitalist society you might live in a stranger’s house (as a tenant), and work in a stranger’s office building, make products or services for strangers you will never meet, and mostly the benefit will go to other strangers. A society develops in which everything is abstract and nothing is what it seems: food is a bizarre mix of chemicals, friendship and romance are games played on apps, education is valued only for its ability to produce income.

This is probably not good for our society. It’s definitely not good for our health. The foods Sheehan litigates against are often of the ultra-processed kind: simulacra, food-like substances that are designed to maximise profit. Everyone knows “bread” is flour leavened with yeast and water, but much of the “bread” we buy is a cocktail of softening agents, stabilisers, emulsifiers and preservatives. We eat about 8 kilograms of these additives per year, and they are associated with, among other things, obesity, cancer, heart disease, anxiety, depression and dementia.

Not everyone sees the value of Sheehan’s work. Some members of the judiciary consider his cases a nuisance, and he has been threatened with “Rule 11” sanctions – which can mean a penalty or the requirement to pay defendants’ legal fees – for filing large numbers of class-action claims that have in many cases been dismissed. In a recent dismissal the judge called the case “yet another spin on an increasingly unpleasant ride”, and added: “It is time for the carousel to come to a halt.”

However, Sheehan is not the only lawyer taking capitalism to court. After a period of high inflation and “shrinkflation” in products across many economies, consumers are more alert to the difference between what they’re told they’re buying and the actual product. In other high-profile class actions (with which Sheehan is not involved), Burger King will soon have to defend its signature “whopper” burger in a Florida court against plaintiffs who say the advertising greatly overstates the soggy reality of what arrives in the paper wrapper. Yum! Brands, owner of KFC and Taco Bell, has faced similar claims in Brooklyn.

Sheehan says the public – who might once have seen class-action lawyers as morally questionable – are on his side. A few times a week, someone will write to “express their encouragement, and say that they’re grateful for the work that I do”. In a country in which companies have increased their power to avoid or subdue regulation, a lawyer who doesn’t mind annoying a few judges plays a part: “Many of these cases that I bring are about all sorts of consumer issues – they would not even be cases, if we had a stronger regulatory system.”

He makes no claim to be fighting a great fight – “I know, we’re not talking about, you know, Volkswagen clean diesel [which cost the car manufacturer tens of billions in fines] or some other great scandal,” he says. But by picking apart the myriad claims that powerful companies make, seemingly with impunity, he does feel he is addressing “larger issues than just, you know, the packaging on a bag of chips”.

He feels, too, that in this work he has found a certain place in the world. “I like this, what I’m doing. I guess you could consider it a calling.”

[See also: Naomi Klein’s mirror world]

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