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Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports cover dated November 2005
Editorial Director Kevin McKean
Categories Consumer advocacy
Frequency Monthly
Circulation 4,000,000 / month
Publisher Consumers Union
First issue January 1936
Country  United States
Language English
Website consumerreports.org
ISSN 0010-7174

Consumer Reports is an American magazine published monthly by Consumers Union. It publishes reviews and comparisons of consumer products and services based on reporting and results from its in-house testing laboratory. It also publishes cleaning and general buying guides. It has approximately 4 million subscribers[1] and an annual testing budget of approximately $21 million U.S.[2] The annual Consumer Reports new car issue, released every April, is typically the magazine's best-selling issue and is thought to influence millions of automobile purchases.

Contents

Objectivity

Consumer Reports does not print outside advertising, accept free product samples, or permit the commercial use of its reviews for selling products. Its publisher states that this policy allows the magazine to "maintain our independence and impartiality... [so that] CU has no agenda other than the interests of consumers."[3]

Consumer Reports states that all tested products are purchased at retail prices by its staff, that no free samples are accepted from manufacturers, and that this avoids the possibility of bias from bribery or from being given "better than average" samples.

Ancillary publications

ConsumerReports.org, the related website, claims more paid subscribers than any other publication-based Web site. Most of its information is available only to paid subscribers.

ConsumerReports.org provides updates on product availability, and adds new products to previously published test results. In addition, the online data includes coverage that is not published in the magazine; for example, vehicle reliability (frequency of repair) tables online extend over the full 10 model years reported in the Annual Questionnaires, whereas the magazine has only a six-year history of each model.

Magazine copies distributed in Canada include a small four-page supplement called "Canada Extra," explaining how the magazine's findings apply to that country and lists the examined items available there.

In 2002, Consumers Union launched the grant-funded project Consumer Reports WebWatch, which aims to improve the credibility of Web sites through investigative reporting, publicizing best-practices standards, and publishing a list of sites that comply with the standards. WebWatch has worked with the Stanford Web Credibility Project, Harvard University's Berkman Center, The Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, and others. WebWatch is a member of ICANN, the W3C and the Internet Society. Its content is free.

Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs is available free on Consumer Reports Health.org. It compares prescription drugs in over 20 major categories, such as heart disease, blood pressure and diabetes, and gives comparative ratings of effectiveness and costs, in reports and tables, in web pages and PDF documents, in summary and detailed form.[4]

Also in 2005 Consumers Union launched the service Greener Choices, which is meant to "inform, engage, and empower consumers about environmentally-friendly products and practices." It contains information about conservation, electronics recycling and conservation with the goal or providing an "accessible, reliable, and practical source of information on buying “greener” products that have minimal environmental impact and meet personal needs."

From 1980 up until sometime in the late 1990s, Consumers Union published a kids' version of Consumer Reports called Penny Power, later changed to Zillions.[5] This publication was similar to Consumer Reports but served a younger audience. It gave children financial advice for budgeting their allowances and saving for a big purchase, reviewed kid-oriented consumer products (e.g., toys, clothes, electronics, food, videogames, etc.), and generally promoted smart consumerism in kids and teens; testing of products came from kids of the age range a product was targeted toward.

Product changes after Consumer Reports tests

In the July, 1978 issue, Consumer Reports rated the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon car "not acceptable", the first car it had judged such since the AMC Ambassador, in 1968. In its testing they found the possibility of these models developing an oscillatory yaw as a result of a sudden violent input to the steering; the manufacturer claimed that "Some do, some don't" show this behavior, but it has no "validity in the real world of driving".[6] Nevertheless, the next year, these models included a lighter weight steering wheel rim and a steering damper; Consumer Reports reported that the previous instability was no longer present.

In a 2003 issue of CR, the magazine tested the Nissan Murano crossover utility vehicle. Consumer Reports did not recommend the vehicle because of a problem with its power steering, even though the vehicle had above-average reliability. The specific problem was that the steering would stiffen substantially on hard turning. Consumer Reports recommended the 2005 model, which addressed this problem.

Lawsuits against Consumers Union

Bose

In 1981 Bose Corporation sued Consumer Reports (CR) magazine for libel. CR reported in a review that the sound from the system that they reviewed "tended to wander about the room". The District Court found that CR "had published the false statement with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of its truth or falsity". The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's ruling, and the United States Supreme Court affirmed in Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., finding that CR's statement was made without actual malice, which was the standard in cases where the First Amendment was involved; and therefore was not libelous.[7][8][9]

Suzuki

In 1988, Consumer Reports announced during a press conference that the Suzuki Samurai had demonstrated a tendency to roll and deemed it "not acceptable." The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) declared that its tests showed that the Consumer Reports charges were invalid. In spite of this finding, Samurai sales plummeted from over 81,000 in 1987 to barely 5,000 units just two years later. Suzuki filed a lawsuit against Consumer Reports in 1996, when the magazine reprinted the 1988 results for The Samurai in their anniversary issue as well as in promotional material to help advertise and ask for donations.[10] Video tape footage shot by Consumer Reports has since surfaced showing the Samurai successfully maneuvering the standard "emergency avoidance" test. The video footage also shows David Pittle, Consumer Reports' then technical director, behind the wheel trying 9 times to roll the Samurai. In the video,[10] Pittle was able to get the vehicle on two wheels, but only after being turned so sharply that it went off the test course with onlooking Consumer Reports employees celebrating.[10] At the request of Pittle, Consumer Reports then constructed a new test course that would allow them to duplicate the maneuver that Pittle had made to get the vehicle to tip up. During the press conference, Pittle claimed that the Suzuki displayed an unusually high propensity to roll over during "routine driving maneuvers" stating "these are very limited steering inputs, this is not turning the wheel like a stunt driver might do to try to whip around and head in the other direction."[11] However Suzuki experts released a video replicating Consumer Reports' test runs that showed that Pittle and other Consumer Reports test drivers did in fact use the very aggressive motions that he claimed were not necessary to get the Samurai to tip.[12]

The Samurai was also subjected to Consumer Reports auto test 71 times while The Jeep Wrangler (54 times), Jeep Cherokee (35 times), and The Isuzu Trooper II (29 times) were not only tested less, but did not have to run the modified course that Pittle had set up specifically for the Suzuki.[13]

Suzuki criticized Consumers Union's test of the Samurai, saying the group was so determined to roll the Samurai over to gain publicity that it reran the test again and again until it did so. Suzuki filed its suit three years after NBC acknowledged rigging a G.M. pickup truck to catch fire for a report about its safety on the network's Dateline program.[14]

In July 2004, after 8 years in court, the suit was settled and dismissed with no money changing hands nor a retraction issued, but Consumers Union did agree no longer to refer to the 16-year-old test results of the 1988 Samurai in its advertising or promotional materials.[15] Consumers Union also released a statement that said its published description of the Samurai's performance was limited to the severe turns in its test, and may have been misconstrued and misunderstood. The group never intended to state or imply that the Samurai easily rolls over in routine driving conditions, the statement continued. This however goes directly against David Pittle's original statement during the 1988 press conference, that the Suzuki would roll even during routine driving maneuvers.[16] Suzuki also retreated from earlier accusations, recognizing C.U.'s stated commitment for objective and unbiased testing and reporting [15]

Suzuki's internal documents show the automaker was aware of Samurai rollover problems but continued to market the small SUV. A July 14, 1985 memo stated, 'It is imperative that we develop a crisis plan that will primarily deal with the roll' factor. Because of the narrow wheel base, similar to Jeep, the car is bound to turn over. That's one reason they have reinforced the interior with a roll cage.'[17] In seven different states in 1988, attorney generals alleged advertising for Suzuki Samurais was misleading and falsely misrepresented its safety, which the automaker settled by paying a $200,000 fine and agreeing to include potential rollover risks warnings in future advertising.

Over the years, over 200 Suzuki Samurai rollover lawsuits have been settled and Suzuki's own expert witnesses testified the automaker was aware of 213 deaths and 8,200 injuries involving Suzuki Samurai rollovers. Since the company agreed to settle the lawsuits for monetary damages, as part of the agreement plaintiffs were required not to disclose any information about their cases to the public. Even though CU was eventually the target of Suzuki's lawsuit, at least nine news organizations besides the consumer group either published or broadcast reviews of the Suzuki Samurai rollover problems in the 1980s. In 2000, the trial judge in the Suzuki vs. CU lawsuit dismissed the case after reviewing all the evidence and concluding the record did not support the charges, but Suzuki appealed. In 2003, despite objections of nearly half of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the case was sent back for a trial. Judge Alex Kozinski wrote, If consumers are purchasing an SUV they will trust with their lives, aren't they entitled to know that the Samurai tipped repeatedly in human-driven tests while the other SUVs didn't tip once?[18]

Before introducing the Samurai in the US, Suzuki had asked General Motors, an affiliate, to market the vehicle. GM declined, stating in a 1984 letter it had 'perceived rollover tendencies'.[19]

Rivera Isuzu

In December 1997, the Isuzu Trooper distributor in Puerto Rico sued CU, alleging that it had lost sales as a result of CU's disparagement of the Trooper. But the trial court granted CU's motion for summary judgment, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the favorable judgment, on the grounds that CU had mentioned only Isuzu and the Trooper, not the distributor specifically; since the challenged statements were not "of and concerning" the distributor, they would be precluded from suing for any injuries suffered as a result of the statements.[20]

Sharper Image

In 2003, Sharper Image sued CR in California for product disparagement, over negative reviews of its Ionic Breeze Quadra air purifier. CR moved for dismissal on October 31, 2003, under California's Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law, and the case was dismissed in November 2004, on the grounds that the Sharper Image "has not shown that the test protocol used by Consumers Union was scientifically, or otherwise, invalid," and had not "demonstrated a reasonable probability that any of the challenged statements were false." The decision also awarded CU $525,000 in legal fees and costs.[21][22]

Controversy over child safety seats

The February 2007 issue of Consumer Reports stated that only two of the child safety seats it tested for that issue passed the magazine's side impact tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which subsequently retested the seats, found that all those seats passed the corresponding NHTSA tests at the speeds described in the magazine report. The CR article reported that the tests simulated the effects of collisions at 38.5 mph. However, the tests that were completed in fact simulated collisions at 70 mph.[23] CR stated in a letter from its president Jim Guest to its subscribers that it would retest the seats. The magazine issue with erroneous findings has not been recalled, but the letter states that after the seats are retested, the results of that test will be published. The article was removed from the CR website, and on January 18, 2007 the organization posted a note on its home page about the misleading tests. Subscribers were also sent a postcard apologizing for the error.

On January 28, 2007, Joan Claybrook, who served on the board of CU from 1982 to 2006 (and was the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1981), discussed the sequence of events leading to the publishing of the erroneous information. The magazine contracted with Calspan to do the actual testing; due to miscommunication, the tests were conducted (using test sleds) at an actual speed of 38 miles per hour. In fact, since automobiles in a crash continue to move after the crash—rather than absorbing all the energy of impact as a test sled does—a test sled impact of 38 miles per hour is considered equivalent to an automobile crash of 70 miles per hour; to replicate an automobile crash of 38 miles per hour, as was intended, the test sled crash should have been carried out at 20 miles per hour.

Claybrook admitted that the magazine should have been motivated to double-check the surprising results; however, she also pointed out that CR was attempting to execute what should have been NHTSA's work. "Consumer Reports does not conduct crash tests save for low-speed bumper-impact tests," she stated. "It has limited expertise in designing such [crash] tests." She further noted that in 2000 Congress had mandated NHTSA to define a set of tests and issue a set of safety standards for child restraints within two years, but that NHTSA still had not yet done so, "though it took less than ten days to evaluate Consumer Reports’ testing and find the error." [24]

Other errors or issues

In 2006, Consumer Reports said six hybrid vehicles would probably not save owners money. The magazine later discovered that they had miscalculated depreciation, and released an update stating that four of the seven vehicles would save the buyer money if the vehicles were kept for five years (including the federal tax credit for hybrid vehicles, which expires after each manufacturer sells 60,000 hybrid vehicles). [25]

In February 1998, the magazine tested pet food and claimed that Iams dog food was nutritionally deficient. They later retracted the report claiming that there had been "a systemic error in the measurements of various minerals we tested – potassium, calcium and magnesium." [26]

In July 1996, Consumer Reports tested motor oils in a fleet of taxi cabs. In their article, they noted that "Big-city cabs don't see many cold start-ups or long periods of high speed driving in extreme heat. But our test results relate to the most common type of severe service - stop-and-go city driving." They were unable to see a "meaningful" difference between any brands of oil which carried the API starburst symbol, but suggested that synthetic oil is "worth considering for extreme driving conditions high ambient temperatures and high engine load or very cold temperatures." [27]

Consumer Reports magazine doesn't gather or solicit members' and readers' input concerning what products to test. As a result, members and readers play no part in helping to determine what classes of products are tested by Consumer Reports.

See also

References

  1. ^ "Our Mission". Consumer Reports. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/aboutus/mission/overview/index.htm. Retrieved 2006-06-20.  
  2. ^ "Consumers Union shopping and testing". Consumer Reports. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/cu-press-room/pressroom/shoppingtesting/index.htm. Retrieved 2006-06-20.  
  3. ^ ConsumerReports.org - Our mission
  4. ^ Drug Reports
  5. ^ http://ibiblio.org/pub/electronic-publications/stay-free/archives/13/zillions.html
  6. ^ Storm over the Omni Horizon, Time Magazine, Jun 26, 1978
  7. ^ Commentary on libel cases in general giving a specific example of Bose Corp. v. Consumer's Union of United States.
  8. ^ Opinion of the United States Supreme Court
  9. ^ NY Times editorial on the Supreme Court's ruling
  10. ^ a b c Susuki Samurai Test Run Video (Consumer Reports)
  11. ^ Susuki Samurai Consumer Reports Press Conference
  12. ^ Susuki Samurai Consumer Reports Press Conference
  13. ^ Susuki Samurai Consumer Reports Press Conference
  14. ^ Susuki says Consumer Reports targeted popular SUV for publicity
  15. ^ a b http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/09/business/suzuki-resolves-a-dispute-with-a-consumer-magazine.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
  16. ^ Susuki Samurai Consumer Reports Press Conference This is standing by our story fully -- no retractions, no corrections and no money paid, said R. David Pittle, senior vice president for technical policy at Consumers Union. This is very acceptable to us. We will agree to disagree, and move on.
  17. ^ <http://www.theautochannel.com/news/press/date/19970422/press001971.html
  18. ^ http://www.crash-worthiness.com/articles/suzuki-lawsuit.html
  19. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/1993/04/12/business/jury-to-decide-suzuki-payout.html
  20. ^ Legal Watch Defamation Claim Arising from Consumer Report Dismissed
  21. ^ Quackwatch article
  22. ^ InfomercialWatch article
  23. ^ Detroit News
  24. ^ "Crash Test Dummies". The New York Times. 2007-01-28. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/opinion/28claybrook.html?_r=1&n=Top%2fOpinion%2fEditorials%20and%20Op%2dEd%2fOp%2dEd%2fContributors&oref=slogin. Retrieved 2007-01-29. "How the testing mistake was made is instructive not only for Consumer Reports but for everyone who cares about public safety."  
  25. ^ "Update: This is a revised report on "The dollars and sense of hybrids"". Consumers Union. September 2006. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/new-cars/high-cost-of-hybrid-vehicles-406/a-note-about-this-report/index.htm. Retrieved 2007-01-29.  
  26. ^ "Consumer Reports' good reputation takes hit from flawed car seats report". San Diego Union Tribune. http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/nation/20070120-1028-infantseats.html. Retrieved 2007-02-05.  
  27. ^ "The surprising truth about motor oils". Consumer Reports: 10–13. July 1996.  

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