OLD Media Moves

A black eye for Consumer Reports?

October 24, 2005

I have always respected Consumer Reports and given it credit for the creation of the consumer reporting movement in business journalism. But the editor of the Rocky Mountain News recently wrote about it in a not-so-flattering way. Read what he had to say here.

To be fair, this seems like an advertising department idea that was not cleared with the editorial side of the publication. But what a minute — there is no advertising in the publication. So what gives?

Consumer Reports’ history is one of the biggest developments in the history of business journalism.

The origins of Consumer Reports began three years before the first issue when Arthur Kallet, an engineer and director of Consumers’ Research, and Frederick Schlink, an engineer, published “100,000 Guinea pigs: Dangers in everyday foods, drugs, and cosmetics.” The book, according to its introduction, is “intended not only to report dangerous and largely unsuspected conditions affecting food, drugs, and cosmetics, but also, so far as possible, to give the consumer some measure of defense against such conditions.â€? In 1972, an updated version came out called “200,000 Guinea pigs.”

In May 1936, Consumers Union Reports published its first issue. It included articles on milk, breakfast cereals, soap and stockings, ranking each of them Grade A and Grade B. Another article argued that credit unions are better than banks, while yet another analyzed Alka-Seltzer and criticized its effectiveness, stating that its claims “vanish like the gas bubbles in the air.�

Consumer Reports was revolutionary. (The name of the magazine was changed in 1942 to make it accessible to all readers, not just union members.) And it was criticized by other publications. Reader’s Digest attacked the publication in 1939, and Good Housekeeping, whose Seal of Approval had been called a fraud by the Consumers Union, accused Consumer Reports of prolonging the Depression.

Never before had journalists joined with researchers to assess the quality and efficacy of products being purchased by millions of consumers. The publication was immediately successful. By 1940, it started asking readers questions about products, and by 1946, circulation had reached 100,000. Subscriptions reached 400,000 just four years later, and in 1952, the magazine published its first frequency-of-repair table for automobiles.

What Consumer Reports did that no other publication had ever attempted was to have products tested by scientists before they were included in an article. In addition, the results of similar products, through scientific tests, were compared to each other, allowing readers to determine which product was more suited for their needs. The magazine became known for its aggressive coverage of products and wasn’t afraid to criticize companies.

For example, a 1942 article showed that the differences in tar and nicotine were insignificant when it came to the harmfulness of smoking, fully a decade before additional concerns about smoking cigarettes were published. As a result of the article, cigarette maker Lorillard launched a national campaign taking advantage of the article, which showed that one of its brands was “lowest in nicotine and tars.� The Federal Trade Commission ordered a cease-and-desist order for the ad campaign, noting that its ads were false and misleading because it only printed a small part of the Consumer Reports article.

For a while, even the federal government attacked Consumers Union, placing it on the House Un-American Activities Committee’s list of subversive organizations. But by 1970, the National Commission on Product Safety recommended the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, primarily a result of Consumer Reports and its work in discovering unsafe products. By 1992, the magazine had more than 5 million subscriptions.

Part of Consumer Reports’ success was due to the fact that the economy was changing. After World War II, the pent-up demand for consumer products made the magazine a natural byproduct of the growing economy. And as it gained credibility with its accurate reports, more consumers came to look to it for advice before buying products. In addition, its credibility was enhanced by the fact that it took no advertising.

As a result, media all over the world now use consumer reporting as one of the mainstays of their business coverage. In particular, television has found that consumer reporting that compares products by price and uses is favored by viewers, and many have full-time consumer reporters to help people fix their problems with faulty products or with unsatisfactory service from retailers and companies. U.S. News & World Report now has a section called “News you can use� that often has consumer-related stories, and even traditional publications such as BusinessWeek have included consumer reporting. BusinessWeek has a “personal finance� section in the back of the weekly magazine that often offers advice on the best products to buy in certain categories, such as stereos. And it has a columnist, Steve Wildstrom, writing reviews of computer gadgets. The Wall Street Journal also has similar consumer reporting on electronics for its readers.

But will consumer reporting last in the mainstream media? MacDougall noted in 1981 that the number of full-time consumer reporters fell from a peak of 500 in 1974 to 200 by 1980, and those that remained “concentrated on snappy, inoffensive superficialities rather than significant exposes of consumer rip-offs.� Today, many media feel pressured to avoid consumer issues because of the advertising concerns. Some people believe that true consumer reporting like that in Consumer Reports is virtually dead at newspapers.

Here’s hoping that Consumer Reports never changes.

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