Shopper’s friend counters enemies

The Consumers’ Association – and its public face, Which? magazine – has made a lot of enemies over the past 40 years, but as other bodies have their funds cut, its independent research is more vital than ever.

SBHD: The Consumers’ Association – and its public face, Which? magazine – has made a lot of enemies over the past 40 years, but as other bodies have their funds cut, its independent research is more vital than ever.

Holiday companies, “suspect” chickens, free-range turkeys, soap powders, the insurance industry and brand owners of all description have had one thing in common during the past 12 months. And that is the close scrutiny of the Consumers’ Association.

The “shopper’s friend”, vigilant since 1957, is rarely out of newspapers or magazines, or off television and radio. It exists to provide a counterpoint to persuasive fmcg marketing. Last week Lever Brothers and its controversial Persil Power brand were on the receiving end of a lashing from Which? magazine, the CA’s public face.

The Which? investigation found what everybody else had suspected for several months – even reformulated Persil Power, with reduced manganese, damages clothes. More than 100 members of staff spent the equivalent of two years on the “wash and wear” comparative tests, 576 hours ironing the garments, using 71kg of detergents and more than 42,000 litres of water to arrive at the conclusion. The cost to the CA was £50,000.

It was the second CA investigation of Persil Power and the company was branded “guilty” like so many defendants in CA public trials in the past. But coupled with a shift in the emphasis of the CA and the changing consumer market, questions about the relevance of the CA have resurfaced.

Critics question its independence and whether having lost subscribers it has to provoke more controversy to survive and justify its position.

“It is a self-appointed body that is really a publishing house and conducts itself with an outdated moralistic tone,” says John Murphy, chairman of branding specialist Interbrand. He locked horns with the organisation last year as spokesman for the British Producers & Brand Owners Group when the CA criticised the brand owners as protectionist and appeared to support the retailers. “It holds a view of the world which is that of a self-righteous, left-wing Sainsbury’s shopper,” adds Murphy.

In almost 40 years the Consumers’ Association has made powerful enemies – it is an occupational hazard. Accusations of impartiality are commonplace but the CA denies recurrent rumours, usually from aggrieved sources, that it receives money from manufacturers. If it lost its independent tag it would die. But there are questions of accountability and how it selects its targets.

Investigations are triggered in a series of ways but there is no formal complaints procedure for the consumer to follow. The CA’s targets are increasingly areas receiving major boosts in marketing spend from financial services, to private health programmes and other areas where deregulation has taken hold.

Its work is financed by its 803,000 members with more than 1 million subscriptions across its range of publications from the original Which? to Holiday Which? and Which? way to Health. Other publications on wine and gardening underline the middle-class leanings of the membership. The magazines take no advertising, reinforcing the CA’s impartiality.

But membership has fallen 13 per cent in the past seven years. The CA claims this is largely because of a harmonisation of subscription rates and that during the same period income has increased to touch £50m in 1993 to 1994.

The Nineties have been as turbulent for the CA as for the companies and business sectors it has sought to police. A pay dispute led to a strike by Which? journalists, redundancies followed and it was forced to close its teenage magazine, Check it Out, after poor sales. The explosion in copycat advice guides covering everything from buying a car, to a hi-fi, to a house, has also eaten away at the CA’s unique selling point.

The recession hit an organisation committed to improving the quality of people’s purchasing decisions. The “changing face of consumerism” has forced a shift in emphasis for CA investigations – more than half of all research is now focused on the provision of services rather than the stereotypical image of the CA as tester of kettles, toasters and hair dryers.

But the change in emphasis has served to raise doubts about the relevance of the CA.

“Reports of the death of the CA have been greatly exaggerated,” says David McNeill, spokesman for the Government-funded National Consumer Council. “I am biased but they are the good guys – its role has changed to reflect changes in the world. The need for its independent research based on value for money and effectiveness is as important today as it has always been.”

The emphasis has clearly changed. Gas, electricity, Post Office and rail privatisation – the CA has a view on all of them, but it claims to have the consumer at heart. Advertising agency GGT was hired last year to handle the CA’s relatively small above-the-line advertising. The vast bulk of its £15m marketing budget remains in direct mail.

Sheila McKechnie recently joined the CA as director after ten years in charge of homelessness charity Shelter. Her arrival will give the organisation a much stronger campaigning edge.

“People feel vulnerable in terms of all kinds of financial and purchasing decisions – many of the things our parents took for granted, like state pensions and the National Health Service, we can no longer take for granted. There is a common misunderstanding of consumer goods – the CA was set up because of the poor quality of manufactured products. The idea that this has changed and everything is now reliable is nonsense.

“The criteria for any investigation are how many people will it affect? How important an issue is it? Can we actually do anything about it? The Persil Power tests cost £50,000. Nobody was going to settle that argument without independent tests because nobody believes either of the companies involved. We settled the argument,” she says.

The CA’s printed mission is to “empower people to make informed consumer decisions” and improve the quality of goods and services. Ironically, doubts about its relevance come at a time when other consumer bodies, including the NCC, are having their central Government funds cut.

Its role is more important now than ever before.

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