In the fall of 1969, somewhere in the southwestern United States, a seven-year-old boy was riding his bicycle down a quiet city street when a male stranger dragged him into a car and drove off. About an hour and a half later, however, the boy escaped. Police struggled to find the kidnapper because they couldn’t identify the make of his vehicle—all they had were the boy’s rather disjointed descriptions: bigger than a Volkswagen yet smaller than a Mercedes, black upholstery patterned with small x’s, a “sort of rectangle with a round thing on it” under the vent window. After weeks of searching, the boy’s mother tried a longshot: She mailed a letter, along with sketches of the car drawn by the boy, to the monthly magazine Consumer Reports. An answer soon came back: Toyota Corona, likely sold between April 1968 and April 1969. Four days later, authorities arrested the culprit.
This story, reported by the United Press International newswire in February 1970, and others like it, have helped establish the expertise and authority behind Consumer Reports, which reviews products ranging from automobiles to showerheads to credit cards. At the organization’s research center in Yonkers, New York, technicians evaluate the efficiency of washing machines by loading them with a mixture of clean clothing and strips of fabric sullied by coffee and pig’s blood. Scientists strike door locks with sledgehammers and force vacuum cleaners to suck up heaps of Maine Coon hair. More than 120 employees, with an annual testing budget of approximately $25 million, evaluate some 3,000 products a year. The results of these impartial studies are then gathered, examined, and published, ad-free, in Consumer Reports. Its mission: Equip consumers with the “knowledge they need to make better and more informed choices.”
Perhaps the most miraculous part of Consumer Reports is that its work is technically a public service: Its parent organization, which publishes the magazine (and is also called Consumer Reports), is a nonprofit. The operation launched in 1936, when consumer-protection laws were practically nonexistent, and for much of its history the magazine has shaped both consumer sentiment and government policy. In 1958, for example, Minnesota Congressman John Blatnik credited the organization for its role in exposing the tobacco industry’s deceptive practice of claiming that filter-tip cigarettes diminished the intake of tar and nicotine.
In recent decades, however, Consumer Reports’s influence has declined. To an extent this is expected, given how the organization hasn’t quite adapted to the new media landscape. But it’s still more than a little surprising that the rigorous, systematic method of reviewing products practiced by Consumer Reports has lost ground to mostly anonymous online product writeups—not just in terms of popularity, but also, one survey has found, public trust. Why are online shoppers settling for taking the word of unidentified, and potentially biased, reviewers? Put another way, why isn’t Consumer Reports reaching new heights in an era when its evenhanded information should in theory be most in-demand?
Consumer Reports reached its peak number of subscribers in 2008, when it had nearly 8 million (print and digital combined), according to Kelli Halyard, a spokesperson. At present, it has roughly 7 million—3.8 million of them print subscribers and 3.2 million of them digital. This is, by magazine standards, a huge subscription base, but the worrisome news for Consumer Reports is that their demographics skew older: The average print subscriber is 65 years old, and the average digital subscriber is 56. Tax records show that for the fiscal year ending in May 2011, the magazine’s parent organization lost $3.5 million dollars, then $2 million the following year. An internal memo sent to top managers in early 2012, and subsequently leaked by the media blogger Jim Romenesko, put the organization’s plight in no uncertain terms: “CR is not growing revenues or subscribers, and we are losing money. We must right the ship.” The missive blamed this downward slope on “new competitors who are doing interesting things.”
These competitors are, in many cases, average consumers, who write their own reviews as soon as products come out and post them on the very websites where shopping decisions are made—a practice that has not only become ubiquitous but, in doing so, made Consumer Reports’s manner of appraisal feel removed from the modern retail experience. In Nielsen’s 2015 “Global Trust In Advertising” report, for instance, around two-thirds of respondents indicated that they trust consumer opinions posted online, and that they were either always or sometimes willing to take action based on those opinions. As for young people, a 2014 poll found that Millennials consider online peer reviews to be slightly more trustworthy and memorable than professional ones.
This shift in attitude has taken place despite frequent discoveries of fraud in crowdsourced reviews. In 2013, for example, after concluding a year-long investigation called “Operation Clean Turf,” the New York Attorney General’s office ordered 19 companies to pay more than $350,000 in fines for flooding various review sites with phony endorsements. Last October, Amazon sued more than 1,100 people for offering to create fake product reviews for $5 apiece. The incentive for sellers to cheat is strong. In a 2011 working paper, Michael Luca, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, found that a one-star increase in a restaurant’s average Yelp rating can boost revenue by between 5 and 9 percent. “People’s intent on gaming the system gets stronger by the year,” Luca told me.
Aware that fraudulent reviews can undermine trust in their platform, companies such as Amazon and Yelp channel resources toward rooting them out. But detection can be difficult, and, at times, Consumer Reports has appeared eager to highlight this weakness. In 2013, for instance, it published a review of review sites active in San Francisco, and found that companies such as Angie’s List and Yelp often operate in ways that leave them vulnerable to conflicts of interest and bias. More recently, Consumerist, an irreverent blog that Consumers Union (the advocacy division of Consumer Reports) purchased from Gawker Media in late 2008, posted an article condemning an apparent loophole in Amazon's review policy that allows companies to offer free or discounted products in exchange for reviews. While Amazon requires reviewers to disclose this arrangement, and companies to accept both positive and negative feedback, the vast majority of these agreements, Consumerist found, result in five-star reviews.
Last fall, a study published by the Journal of Consumer Research showed that Consumer Reports’s reviews and online user-written reviews differed in important ways. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder compared around 350,000 individual Amazon reviews of nearly 1,300 products—everything from baby monitors to bike helmets to carbon-monoxide detectors—with Consumer Reports’s scores for the same goods. Online reviewers, they found, were more likely to give premium brands higher ratings, and rarely compared a variety of similar devices in the same setting, as Consumer Reports does by default.
Ultimately, the researchers found that consumers tend to accept as true the collective wisdom that Amazon conveys about a particular item’s durability, safety, and performance. “We don’t want to say that online reviews are completely untrustworthy and have no value whatsoever,” Bart de Langhe, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Colorado Boulder and the co-author of the study, told me. “But we do want to point out there are strong issues with them, and that in many situations you might be better off relying on expert tests.”
So why, given that Consumer Reports still offers a valuable and rare service, has its subscriber base contracted in recent years? In some respects, the story is typical of print magazines in general. Bolstered by a large, if aging, circulation base, the publication was slow to focus on its online offerings. Unwilling to accept money from advertisers, Consumer Reports placed its reviews behind a paywall—a strategy that may have worked for a while, but also isolated the publication from young readers unfamiliar with the brand. “The thing that has changed dramatically since we were founded 80 years ago has been that we have to be where consumers are,” Marta Tellado, the CEO of Consumer Reports since 2014, told me. “It’s not enough for them to come to us and wait patiently for our reports.”
This delay in adapting also allowed for the emergence of digital-first competitors that draw on some aspects of Consumer Reports’s technique. The sister websites The Wirecutter and The Sweethome, for example, publish reviews that mix expert opinion, a fluency in online culture, and creative, if sometimes unorthodox, experiments—like when The Sweethome had bike thieves help evaluate bike locks.
Tellado’s proposed solutions are standards of print-first magazines seeking to attract new audiences online: rebuilding the Consumer Reports website, rethinking its paywall strategy, producing more videos, distributing more mobile-friendly content, and investing in its social-media presence. “As we dig in a little harder on the digital and start to look at the data, I think you’re going to see a heck of a lot of experimenting,” said Tellado.
She will have some resources to work with: Thanks in part to the economic recovery, in the past few years Consumer Reports’s parent organization has returned to bringing in a net gain. Consumer Reports also has another bright spot: Consumerist receives between 2.5 to 3.5 million unique visitors per month, according to Halyard, which is up since the acquisition from Gawker. Its average reader is 38.
Luca, the Harvard professor, told me he thinks Consumer Reports should further revise its business model by forming long-term partnerships with the online platforms where consumers already are. In 2015, Consumer Reports took some steps in this direction by partnering with Amazon to provide the site with buying guides for smartwatches and wireless routers. (The Consumer Reports name and link to its website are easy to miss, but it’s a start.) The danger of associations like these, however, is that Consumer Reports risks tarnishing its longstanding reputation as a consumer advocate and independent reviewer of household wares.
All this, however, is hardly the first obstacle Consumer Reports has faced. In 1940, the House Un-American Activities Committee listed the organization as a subversive operation for its suspected ties to communism. Consumer Reports replied in the form an editorial, stating, “If the condemnation of worthless, adulterated, and misrepresented products is a communistic activity, then the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and the American Medical Association must be paid direct from Moscow.” In 1954, Consumer Reports was dropped from committee’s list, and has continued to educate the public ever since.