Friday, May 20, 2011

Every Reviewer's Competition In Print, Consumer Reports Offers Mediocre, Though Unbiased, Guidance.

The Good: Generally good participation in lists, Well-written reviews
The Bad: Environmental impact, Some lists are very unclear.
The Basics: With its own quirks, Consumer Reports is an average magazine, often with a solid methodology, but just as frequently unclear numbers of tests on all sorts of products.

It is hard sometimes to look at a magazine like Consumer Reports and not be a little envious as a reviewer. In the pages of this simple, nonprofit magazine, writers get paid to review all manner of things. . . like me, only with more regular paychecks. As a result, it is worth considering reviews of Consumer Reports with more of a "grain of salt" attitude. I'm not saying reviewers like me cannot write good, unbiased reviews of the magazine, but I do think that when we consider Consumer Reports, there is a natural instinct to compare and contrast it to our own reviews.

Consumer Reports is a monthly glossy magazine published by the nonprofit Consumers Union of the United States. The purpose of the magazine is quite simple; each issue explores products in a certain grouping - electronics, cold cereals, appliances, automobiles - and after rigorous testing and consideration, products are evaluated. There are articles which highlight the criteria used to determine ratings and those articles often highlight glitches in good products or redeemable points in otherwise cheap products.

The articles are often followed by huge lists. The lists are straightforward ratings on a five-point scale from red dot with a tiny circle (best) to a black circle (worst) with an empty white circle representing average. This provides a strong visual evaluation system for readers to quickly get evaluations on products. The first serious issue of comparison that readers are likely to have with Consumer Reports reviews is here in the lists. Often, the lists do not inform readers how many votes were cast on a product in order to generate the overall rating. So, for example, in the issue I used for review - my father gave me a gift subscription - the back pages had notations for used car buyers on the trouble spots of major cars. For, for example, the Audi A8 cars being evaluated, four model years had columns that had no circles, with the words "insufficient data" in their place. That's fine; Consumer Reports could not help there, but for 2004 and 2005 years, there are circles in all of the appropriate problem areas, but there is no indication of how many owners were surveyed to give the "sufficient data" here.

The difference is all the difference. Other reviewing sites work so well, not only because of the star system, but because of the supporting reviews that accompany them. When I started reviewing, on a website I have since left, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation was universally given five-stars, the same as The Godfather. Without the supporting reviews where some claim that National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is the comedic equivalent of The Godfather (I disagree), casual viewers would simply see the ratings and say "These writers believe Christmas Vacation is as good as The Godfather. Ack!" Or, as important, lacking detailed reviews - as most of Consumer Reports lists do, readers seldom know if they are looking at an aggregate circle rating from one or one hundred people.

Because Consumer Reports is both established - it has been around for over sixty years - and professional, there are no glaring holes in their reviewing lists. Consumer Reports is often far more useful as a consumer research tool for actually dredging an entire market. So, for example, their annual auto issue looks at every single car in the new model year. As well, universally applied criteria are applied, creating a solid methodology for reviews.

Consumer Reports is a hundred page magazine that has no advertisements, save for the magazine itself. This helps keep the magazine unbiased. Issues like the auto issue, then, become solid tools for consumers to use when shopping for new cars. The articles are generally straightforward and spell out for the reader exactly what criteria were used to evaluate the product. Moreover, the writers, reviewers and publisher of Consumer Reports are smart enough to know that readers are looking for different things when they pick out a dish washer or automobile. As a result, their articles usually highlight things like the best for safety, best for price, best for environmental impact. As well, they frequently highlight the ones most worth avoiding for the same criteria.

The other advantage Consumer Reports has over independent reviewers is that because it is established and has such strength in determining the trends in the market for shoppers, they get products early for evaluation and repeat themes with a frequency significant enough to stay useful. As a result, they will look at each year's freezers and microwaves and include with the new year's models the ratings charts for any of the prior years' models that might still be in the marketplace. This makes for a very easy, very direct evaluation grid for consumers.

But at the end of the day, much of Consumer Reports is lists and grids and the magazine is a very dry read. Moreover, despite the technical glitches frequently plaguing internet review sites, Consumer Reports is part of a very old paradigm as a print source, as opposed to our more efficient and environmentally responsible digital medium. Internet reviewers do not waste paper and as a result offers a better environmental option than the old print magazines.

In the end, I opted to recommend Consumer Reports because while online review sites often far more in-depth with their reviews, the grids of Consumer Reports are frequently equally valuable simply because they are (with very few exceptions) all present and filled out using a well reasoned methodology.

For other magazines reviewed by me, please check out my take on:
Star Wars Insider
Lost Magazine
The Bark


For other magazine or book reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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