The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

14 April 2005

A solid black dot

Matt Deatherage takes Consumer Reports to task:

[I]n the modern era, Consumer Reports has a history of incompetent product ratings by pretending one category of product is really another and rating it on that basis. I know that the group has a First Amendment right to do that, but that doesn't make their analysis correct, or even pass the laugh test. I know that when they nail a popular product, they use that for years to milk money from decent people who, as likely as not, are scared that a product may hurt them or just scared of looking like a fool for having purchased one.

If Consumer Reports had been founded in 1986 instead of 1936, there's no way it would have a reputation for being a "straight shooter" or a "trusted name in product recommendations." They're wrong, they're loud, they're mean about it, and they preach First Amendment rights while using copyright and lawsuits to silence their critics.

The specific wrongness under discussion is their verdict on the Ionic Breeze air gizmo, but plenty of other examples exist.

The magazine likes to brag about how it accepts no advertising, with the implication that it is fiercely independent and evaluates products (and, lately, "services") without even the slightest hint of bias. Mostly, this comes off as an attempt to exploit widespread consumer cynicism; historically, the automotive-enthusiast magazines, whenever they published favorable reviews, have gotten (and often printed) snitty letters from detractors observing that the check from [fill in name of manufacturer] must have cleared.

Consumers Union, by thinking itself above that sort of thing, has left itself wide open for another charge: blatant elitism. And it's not hard to find in any random issue a piece where they've dumbed-down some technical aspect of a product, perhaps because those non-technical types who actually read the magazine couldn't possibly understand all the fine points. Besides, they keep changing their standards: used to be, a car was Recommended if it tested well and had at least average reliability. Now they've factored dubious crash-test results into the equation. (Is there a "standard crash"? In the laboratory, sure. On the highway, not even close.)

The best thing in Consumer Reports is the list of repair records for various classes of products, largely because the results are supplied by actual readers. (Consumers Union does ask the questions, and sometimes the questions are open to interpretation, but by and large they don't muck around with these.) But, as a typical member of Big Media, they're anxious to impress you with their level of expertise — whether it's deserved or not.

Posted at 8:05 AM to Dyssynergy