Consumer Reports cover dated
|First issue||January 1936|
Consumer Reports is an American magazine published since 1936 by Consumers Union, a nonprofit organization dedicated to unbiased product testing, consumer-oriented research, public education, and advocacy. Consumer Reports publishes reviews and comparisons of consumer products and services based on reporting and results from its in-house testing laboratory and survey research center. The magazine accepts no advertising, pays for all the products it tests, and as a nonprofit organization has no shareholders. It also publishes general and targeted product/service buying guides.
Consumer Reports is well known for its policies on editorial independence, which it says are to "maintain our independence and impartiality... [so that] CU has no agenda other than the interests of consumers". CR has unusually strict requirements and sometimes has taken extraordinary steps; for example it declined to renew a car dealership's bulk subscription because of "the appearance of an impropriety".
Consumer Reports does not allow outside advertising in the magazine, but its website has retailers' advertisements. Consumer Reports states that PriceGrabber places the ads and pays a percentage of referral fees to CR, who has no direct relationship with the retailers. Consumer Reports publishes reviews of its business partner and recommends it in at least one case. CR had a similar relationship with BizRate at one time and has had relationships with other companies including Amazon.com, Yahoo!, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, BillShrink, and Decide.com. CR also accepts grants from other organizations, and at least one high-ranking Consumer Reports employee has gone on to work for a company he evaluated.
Consumer Reports says its staff purchases all tested products at retail prices, anonymously in "most cases", and that they accept no free samples in order to prevent bias from bribery or from being given better than average samples. However, in order to review some products before they are publicly available CR does accept "press samples" from manufacturers but says it pays for the samples and does not include them in ratings. For most of CR's history, it minimized contact with government and industry experts "to avoid compromising the independence of its judgment". In 2007, in response to errors in infant car seat testing, it began accepting advice from a wide range of experts on designing tests, but not on final assessments. Also, at times CR allows manufacturers to review and respond to criticism before publication.
Some objective and comparative tests published by Consumer Reports are carried out under the umbrella of the international consumer organization International Consumer Research & Testing. Consumer Reports also uses outside labs for testing, including for 11 percent of tests in 2006.
Product testing headphones in an anechoic chamber
ConsumerReports.org, the related website is largely 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 1998, Consumers Union launched the grant-funded project Consumer Reports WebWatch, which aimed 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 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. As of July 31, 2009, WebWatch has been shut down, though the site is still available.
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.
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".
Consumers Union published a kids' version of Consumer Reports called Penny Power, later changed to Zillions. This publication was similar to Consumer Reports but served a younger audience. At its peak, the magazine covered close to 350,000 subscribers. 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. It also taught kids about deceitful marketing practices practiced by advertising agencies. The magazine folded in 2000.
Consumer Reports had an annual testing budget of approximately US$25 million as of April 2016. and it had approximately 7 million subscribers (3.8 million print and 3.2 million digital) and an annual testing budget of approximately US$25 million.
The organization had around 6 million members in July 2018.
See the history of Consumers Union.
In the July 1978 issue, Consumer Reports rated the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon automobile "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". 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.
In 2010, CR rated the 2010 Lexus GX 460 SUV unsafe after the vehicle failed one of the magazine's emergency safety tests. Toyota temporarily suspended sales of the vehicle, and after conducting its own test acknowledged the problem. A recall for the vehicle was issued, and the vehicle passed a Consumer Reports re-test.
In 2016, CR found wildly inconsistent battery life in its testing of Apple's 2016 MacBookPro. This led to the discovery of a bug in the Safari web browser, which was promptly fixed by Apple, via software update.
In May 2018 CR said it could not recommend the Tesla Model 3 due to concerns about the car’s long stopping distance. Within days, Tesla issued a remote software update. CR retested the car’s brakes, then gave the Model 3 a “recommended” rating.
Consumers Union has been sued several times by companies unhappy with reviews of their products in Consumer Reports. Consumers Union has fought these cases vigorously.[page needed] As of October 2000, Consumers Union had been sued by 13 manufacturers and never lost a case.
In 1971, Bose Corporation sued Consumer Reports (CR) magazine for libel after CR reported in a review that the sound from the system it reviewed "tended to wander about the room". The case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court, which affirmed in Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc. that CR's statement was made without actual malice and therefore was not libelous.
In 1988, Consumer Reports announced during a press conference that the Suzuki Samurai had demonstrated a tendency to roll and deemed it "not acceptable". Suzuki sued in 1996 after the Samurai was again mentioned in a CR anniversary issue. In July 2004, after eight years in court, the suit was settled and dismissed with no money changing hands and no 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.
In December 1997, the Isuzu Trooper distributor in Puerto Rico sued CR, alleging that it had lost sales as a result of CU's disparagement of the Trooper. A trial court granted CU's motion for summary judgment, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the favorable judgment.
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, and the case was dismissed in November 2004. The decision also awarded CR $525,000 in legal fees and costs.
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. CR stated in a letter from its president Jim Guest to its subscribers that it would retest the seats. 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, The New York Times published an op-ed from 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), where she discussed the sequence of events leading to the publishing of the erroneous information.
In 2006, Consumer Reports said six hybrid vehicles would probably not save owners money. The magazine later discovered that it 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).
In February 1998, the magazine tested pet food and claimed that Iams dog food was nutritionally deficient. It later retracted the report claiming that there had been "a systemic error in the measurements of various minerals we tested – potassium, calcium and magnesium".
Consumer Reports graphs formerly used a modified form of Harvey Balls for qualitative comparison. The round ideograms were arranged from best to worst. On the left of the diagram, the red circle indicated the highest rating, the half red and white circle was the second highest rating, the white circle was neutral, the half black circle was the second lowest rating, and the entirely black circle was the lowest rating possible. 
As part of a wider rebranding of Consumer Reports in September 2016, the appearance of the magazine's rating system was significantly revamped. The Harvey Balls were replaced with new color-coded circles: green, for Excellent; lime green, for Very Good; yellow, for Good; orange, for Fair; and red, for Poor. It was stated that this new system will help improve the clarity of ratings tables by using a "universally understood" metaphor.
How the testing mistake was made is instructive not only for Consumer Reports but for everyone who cares about public safety.
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