Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports is an American magazine published monthly by Consumers Union, a non-profit organization founded in 1936 by Arthur Kallet, Colston Warne, and others who felt that the established Consumers Research organization was not aggressive enough. According to the magazine’s website, it has approximately 4 million subscribers, and an annual testing budget of approximately $21 million U.S.

Consumer Reports is known for publishing reviews and comparisons of consumer products and services based on reporting and results from its in-house testing laboratory. Consumer Reports does not accept advertising nor permit the commercial use of its reviews for selling products. Consumer Reports’ tests and ratings of appliances, foods, automobiles and other products/services are highly respected. The annual Consumer Reports new car issue, released every March, is typically the magazine’s best-selling issue and is thought to influence millions of automobile purchases.

All tested products are purchased at retail by Consumer Reports staff. No free samples are accepted from manufacturers, a policy which has tradeoffs. With short life-cycle products such as electronics, it is not unusual to find the reviewed product has been replaced or discontinued prior to the publication of the review.

Consumers Union also publishes With millions of readers, it has more paid subscribers than any other publication-based website. While most of its information comes at a small fee, in 2002 Consumers Union launched Consumer Reports WebWatch. The grant-funded project seeks to improve the credibility of websites through investigative reporting, publicizing best-practices standards, and publishing a list of sites that comply with the standards. Its content is free. In 2005 Consumers Union launched Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs. This service takes publicly available (but hard to digest) studies on pharmaceutical effectiveness and combines them with pricing information in an easy-to-read format.

Consumer Reports should not be confused with Consumers Digest, a for-profit publication which does accept advertisements and allows companies to use its reviews for marketing purposes. Nor should Consumer Reports be confused with ConsumerSearch, which reviews, analyzes, and summarizes reviews from a number of sources, rather than conducting any objective testing of products.

Lawsuits vs. Consumers Union

In 1984, Bose Corporation sued Consumer Reports for publishing a review in which Bose speakers did relatively poorly. The review stated that the stereo image of the Bose speakers was unstable and “tended to wander about the room”, undermining the basic Direct/Reflecting concept behind Bose’s products. The final verdict ruled that Consumer Reports had in fact libeled Bose by overstating its negative findings, which were, more precisely, that the stereo image merely “moved along the wall” behind the speakers. This was something of a Pyrrhic victory for Bose, who were now widely regarded as bullies by loyal Consumer Reports readership, the very demographic group towards whom Bose products were targeted. Furthermore, the monetary award of $210,000 in libel damages was appealed to the Federal Supreme Court, who overturned it. Nevertheless, the case is believed to have had a chilling effect on publication of subjective preferences in reviews, both specifically by Consumer Reports as well as in the media as a whole.

In 1996 Consumer Reports was the subject of a lawsuit by Suzuki Motors regarding a road test of the Suzuki Samurai that the magazine had published in 1988. Suzuki alleged that the magazine’s test of the company’s popular off-roader had been skewed so as to show that the vehicle was prone to tipping over during an avoidance test (an equivalent of other magazines’ “elk test”). The lawsuit was dismissed by mutual consent in 2004.

In 2003, Sharper Image sued Consumer Reports in California for product disparagement, over negative reviews of its Ionic Breeze Quadra air purifier. Consumer Reports 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 Consumers Union $525,000 in legal fees and costs.