Thursday, March 05, 2009

Random reactions to Consumer Reports' Auto Issue

The mouths of real men don't water when they hear that the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is going to hit the newstands. That's adolescent stuff.

No, real men get all excited when they hear that Consumer Reports is about to publish its latest Auto Issue.

Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports, consumerreports.org and many other invaluable resources) is an amazing organization. They exist for one reason only: to provide unbiased information to consumers to help them buy the highest quality, safest, most reliable product that best fits our needs. CU accepts no money from corporations, and certainly nothing from the companies that create the products CU evaluates. CU has no axe to grind, no reason to do anything but totally objectively test and analyze stuff, to help consumers get the best deal (not necessarily the lowest price).

Companies are even barred from using CU results in their own advertisements (usages like "Look, CU says our car is the best!" are quickly challenged in court - and won).

The Auto Issue offers detailed evaluations of hundreds of cars, both new and used. It is a must-read for anyone planning to buy a vehicle (not that there's much of that going on these days). I definitely do not plan to buy a new car. I hope to never again have to buy another car again, in my lifetime. At least not one that uses gasoline. But it is still fun to read.

Here are some things that caught my eye:
  • First the cover: at first glance, it looks like many other magazine covers. Lots of bright colors, very nicely laid out, etc. But there is something really different about it: right on the cover, next to the titles of articles and sections in the magazine, are the page numbers on which those articles appear! Page numbers? Radical! Usually, magazines hide page numbers so you have to leaf through the magazine to find the article of interest, coming across ads in the process. Since Consumer Reports has no ads, there is no reason to do that.
  • On page 15, CR offers "Automaker report cards", overall scores of brands (Honda, GM, Hyundai, etc.), rather than particular models. Honda is #1 with a score of 78. 95% of the vehicles tested are recommended by CR. Incredible. Second is Subaru, with a slightly lower score but 100% recommendations (disclosure: we are a Subaru family; my wife loves the all-wheel drive). Toyota is third. Out of the 45 brands shown on the page, four of the last (lowest scores) five brands are Ford, GM and Chrysler, in that order. And, horribly, CR could not recommend even a single Chrysler model. That is just downright embarrassing.
  • Oddly, the cover shows a Honda Fit as the "top value" for 2009, but in its "Top Picks" section, the Fit does not appear. CR must have some very interesting algorithms for making its choices.
So the bottom line is that if you are thinking of purchasing a car, you would be downright nuts to not consult the Auto Issue first.

Best thing to do is subscribe online: just $26 a year gives you full online, searchable access to all of CR's information. You will recoup that small investment many times over, both in terms of money and value for you and your family.

One final comment: I believe that CU has the potential to radically transform the distribution of power in our capitalist society. Today, corporations push products at us, convincing us to buy their stuff mostly through manipulation (ads), coercion (high pressure sales) and ignorance (most Americans are poorly educated, non-critical thinkers). With CU, you can ignore the ads and focus solely on the data; at a minimum, you can use CU to avoid purchasing unsafe, nasty, poorly-designed products.

I strongly urge you to join CU today, and help make it more effective, able to test more products and take more action to protect consumers. It will be the best investment you make in 2009. I guarantee it.

12 comments:

Don Burleson said...

"Companies are even barred from using CU results in their own advertisements (usages like "Look, CU says our car is the best!" are quickly challenged in court - and won)."

Prohibited by who?

It's a free country!

Are you positive about this?

Steven Feuerstein said...

Free country? What have you been smoking? :-)

Well, it's free and it's not free. It's certainly not anarchistic. Now, that would be free!

Instead, this country honors private property, including intellectual property and copyrighted information.

Here is the CONSUMERS UNION
NO COMMERCIAL USE POLICY, lifted from http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/aboutus/adviolation/index.htm:

We accept no advertising and we are not beholden to any commercial interest. Our income is derived from the sale of Consumer Reports and other publications and information services, and from noncommercial contributions, grants, and fees. Published information from Consumers Union, including our Ratings and Reports, is intended solely for the benefit of our subscribers and other consumers, in order to help them make informed choices and decisions about consumer products, services, and other consumer matters. Such information may not be used by others in advertising or to promote a company’s product or service. In addition, this policy precludes any commercial use of any of Consumers Union’s published information in any form, or of the names of Consumers Union®, Consumer Reports®, or any other of Consumers Union’s publications or services, without our express written permission. If Consumers Union learns that this policy has been violated, it will take all steps necessary to prevent the misuse of its names or of any of its materials, including legal action where appropriate.

Don Burleson said...

Hi Steve,

>> this policy precludes any commercial use of any of Consumers Union’s published information in any form

Facinating, thanks!

It's not "free" information at all, they own it!

Now I get it . . . Thanks!

Steven Feuerstein said...

I am really not sure what your point is, Don. Do you have a criticism of CU or were you just seeking an understanding?

CU refuses to allow its intellectual property to be used by others for commercial gain.

Period.

Don Burleson said...

Hi Steve,

>> CU refuses to allow its intellectual property to be used by others for commercial gain.

My point is, at first blush, this policy sounds like CU was trying to suppress free speech!

I've never thought of an opinion as "intellectual property" before.

Opinions (like CU ratings) are usually considered protected free speech . . .

Steven Feuerstein said...

Given the consistent ease with which CU is able to defend its intellectual property from being used in violation of its "no commercial use" policy, such usage of CU IP is most definitely not protected free speech.

Your last comment does help me understand better. The information that CU publishes does not consist of "opinions." These are the scientific results of their tests, the products of much expense and labor.

The entire purpose of CU is "to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves." It does this without accepting any funds from corporations. It is funded by membership services and other activities. For a corporation to use CU's evaluations to promote itself and reap financial gain is in direct violation of its mission. So on top of intellectual property rights, CU explicitly (and fully within its rights as established by US law) bars such usage and broadcasts that fact widely and clearly.

A very impressive group, don't you think?

Don Burleson said...

Hi Steve,

>> For a corporation to use CU's evaluations to promote itself and reap financial gain is in direct violation of its mission.

Yeah. I was having trouble understanding how they could unilaterally enforce this!

At first blush, someone saying "Consumer Reports rated our widgets as #1" is not intellectual property, but I guess it is legally enforceable. . . .

I wonder how enforceable this is on the interweb, where IP law is non-existent!

*********************************
>> A very impressive group, don't you think?

I remember going to the library for CR magazine, and I just signed-up for the CR online . . .

Now I just have to remember to use it!

As to the car ratings issue, I rarely buy new cars, too much depreciation! If you buy smart, you can get a used car that goes up in value:

http://www.dba-oracle.com/golf_travel/classic_car_investing_tips.htm

Girl Next Door (gnd) said...

@Don: I think the main point here is to ensure that CU's reports stay un-biased. If an automobile manufacturer cites CU's ratings, as a consumer, my first instinct would be to wonder if I should take that rating with a pinch of salt??

@Steven: Great post! and yes, I totally agree that the CU review are very very valuable in purchasing anything from Vitamins to Cars...

Joel Garry said...

I've noticed an interesting Heisenberg effect: If something rates low by CU, then people don't want it. So the price goes down. So what you compare it to changes. And if your criteria varies from what CU uses, there can be a larger divergence between their conclusions and a personal conclusion.

To give a concrete example, you cited how low Chryslers are on their totem pole. Perfectly reasonable given that CU is evaluating based on objective criteria such as "how good a commuting appliance this is." So people want Hondas more than Chryslers. But big Chryslers aren't competing with Hondas, they're competing with big luxury cars. And for commuting, there are implicit attributes too.

So when I personally go buy a car, I place more weight on different attributes than CU (and most everyone else). That's why I've twice now bought new loaded Chrysler 300's (M and C Hemi)... each for the market price of the contemporaneous Accord. My commute is long - a small difference in NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) makes a big difference. And people think little Japanese cars last so long - compare a smoking rattletrap Honda with 200K miles on it to a larger car - no way. And the gas cost is not so big when you honestly add it up.

I came to Don's "ten year old classic is price minimization" conclusion when I was a teenager (specific to Corvettes), but nowadays reliability and repair costs while pounding on the LA freeways tends to override everything. I do take the train a lot now that I have a stable job, but who knows how long that will last. Almost went for the green Bentley Turbo R though...

The only reliability problem I had with the 300M was the transmission, which became a known bug, fixed by replacing with next version. I coulda gone another 50K miles in it, but a new Hemi... for the price of an Accord...

Don Burleson said...

Hi Joel,

>> If something rates low by CU, then people don't want it.

Yeah, people will talk, no matter how CU tries to stifle it! I would imagine that the temptation to tell people that you were #1 would be hard to resist, just as it would be hard for a competitor not to tell folks that somebody got a low rating . .

*****************************
>> I came to Don's "ten year old classic is price minimization" conclusion when I was a teenager (specific to Corvettes),

I saw that Vette on your web page . . NICE!

tim said...

You can't copyright information. Simple as that.

If I say "Consumer Reports gave my widget an 'C' rating," I am only republishing information. You can claim copyright on the expression of information, but not the information itself. So if I republish CR's ratings verbatim, that's a violation of copyright. But I can do what I want with the information itself.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_copyright_law#Idea.2Fexpression

Now, there's also trademark. The only issue there is whether or not I am implying the CR is affiliated with me or has a business relationship with me. But that's easy to make clear.

But the key here is that information is not intellectual property.

Do you have any examples of this policy holding up in court? I know there are some examples of companies bowing to cease-and-desist letters, but I doubt that this would hold up in a real court of law.

Steven Feuerstein said...

As far as I know, CU has never had any trouble enforcing the limitations on the use of their proprietary information (their ratings, etc.). I am certain it has been tested, but can't point you to any URLs.

But I don't think this kind of scenario is all that unusual. For example, Oracle requires of companies that they not make public the results of benchmarks that they perform against other databases (or that's what I recall, anyway).

Regards, SF