Since its inception in 1936, Consumer Reports has been the "buyer's bible" for millions of Americans, who turn to the magazine before buying toasters, cars, and even condoms.
Last summer, it made news when it blasted the 2001 Mitsubishi Montero Limited as being unsafe. When 60 Minutes II Correspondent Vicki Mabrey first visited the company headquarters, the magazine was facing two lawsuits from car companies but that didn't seem to bother the folks at Consumer Reports.
They are used to controversy - and used to making enemies - as they go about the job of ttesting, informing and protecting.
Mabrey reports that the magazine's headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y., resembles a mad scientist's laboratory. Everywhere one goes, there are sounds of products beings revved, smashed and generally tested to the limit of their abilities: dolls, windshield wipers, vacuum cleaners, treadmills and jeans.
Most people would say that Consumer Reports tests very precisely. To scrutinize dishwashing soap, the testers try all sorts of food, including caked-on Cheez Whiz, peanut butter and jelly. Thousands of dishes are dirtied. Then they're washed with precisely the same amount of detergent, in water exactly the same temperature. Then the judging begins.
"It's really a horse race," said Jack Toback, who has been testing dishwashers for more than 30 years. "And we all know when you go to the horse track, you see the horses trot out, and they all look great. But they all don't win. And that's what we tell our readers: which ones are the winners, and which ones are the trotters."
Besides testing pens and pounding mattresses, the magazine has been one of the country's leading crusaders - fighting for everything from safer baby cribs to cleaner drinking water to seat belts and air bags in cars.
"We don't take advertising; we don't take free samples; we accept no gifts or grants from any manufacturer," said David Pittle, who heads up the testing division at the magazine. "We have no ax to grind. We are totally independent, and that's a very key point." With 19 years on the job, he is a relative newcomer.
The magazine is very powerful. A good rating mean a company's sales can skyrocket, while a bad one can stop a product dead in its tracks. So it's not surprising that the magazine would get sued by company representatives who think they've been wronged.
When Echo, a company that manufactures leaf blowers, got a rating that said its blower was relatively loud, it sued. "They made a mistake," said Robin Pendergrast, who represents Echo. "They had screwed up the test. Period."
Pittle pointed out that Consumer Reports not only tells the companies exactly how it performed the test, but makes the testers available to answer questions.
Said Pittle: "We're not trying to make manufacturers or break manufacturers. We're trying to give consumers the information they need to make a good choice. And not all things are good choices. Some of them are products to avoid. I'm sorry. That's the way it is."
Isuzu sued the magazine. In tests, Consumer Reports' professional drivers found that two Isuzu models tipped up on two wheels. The magazine gave the '95 and '96 Troopers its worst rating, and told consumers not to buy them. Sales dropped 43 percent after that report.
A year later, Isuzu sued the magazine's parent company, Consumers Union.
Isuzu wasn't the only company complaining. In 1988, the Suzuki Samurai was tested. "Going, Going Gone" is how Consumer Reports described the model.
The magazine held a press conference, warning consumers. According to Suzuki's lawyer, George Ball, sales dropped 80 percent as a result.
Test drivers came to the track that day determined to force the Samurai to tip, Suzuki said. Ball said that videotapes of the test prove that.
Last summer, the magazine gave the 2001 Mitsubishi Montero Limited its worst rating, making it the third sport utility vehicle to be branded not acceptable. Mitsubishi, like the others, blaes the test.
"Steer wide, steer too fast, steer too late, you can spin it out, slide a vehicle out, you can tip a vehicle up," says the company's attorney Chris Spencer. "It's been done many times. It's the oldest trick in the book."
The tests, done at a track in Connecticut, have been criticized by the automakers and the government for being unscientific and unlike anything a driver would find on a real highway.
"The purpose of our test is to evaluate a vehicle and tell the consumer how it's going to perform in the real world," says Pittle. "Now it may be taht these kinds of situations are rare, but when the do occur, the consumer needs to be in a vehicle that is going to perform safely."
So far, Mitsubishi has not taken legal action. But will all these challeneges tarnish the magazine's reputation?
The Isuzu case went to trial in February. Although Consumer Reports was found not guilty of libel, some of the statements it made about the Trooper were found to be false. The Suzuki case was recently dismissed for lack of evidence. Suzuki is appealing.
"We obsess over accuracy, we obsess over being fair and unbiased, and I think that's going to continue," said Pittle. "These lawsuits won't make that any difference. What these lawsuits have taught us is that right now manufacturers with a lot of money can bring about an action to try to silence an honest critic. They will not silence Consumer Reports."
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