It Came From the Consumer Reports Lettercol I: Food

This is something I’ve always wanted to do, for years in fact.  Now that I have a scanner, the floodgates might finally be open for articles so that UR can stop being so damn moribund as a site.  “It Came From the CR Lettercol” is an article series for the URBMN subsite at this point, but might become a UR series soon – seriously, it would be nice to launch something from this subsite to the main site for once.  Comment, impart, let me know if what I’m doing is good or not.  Hey, if you’re that anonymous Aussie from eLounge who wants to comment four times about how I’m a self-pitying Cynic-loving wannabe elitist, how metal can’t be controlled and other clichés that probably predate 1990…hell, you’re not reading this blog, so why’d I bring that up?  HEIL SATAN!

Anyway, the idea for the article isn’t complicated.  It’s selections from the Letters column of Consumer Reports.  I’ve been an avid reader since the early 1990’s, and I became a subscriber in 2004 after several years away from the magazine.  I consider the mid-1980’s to early 1990’s the golden era for CR.  The current version under the aegis of Jim Guest/Margot Slade is also commendable, but the incessant renewal slips I got in the mail every six minutes damn near put me off the magazine at one point.  I hate the incredibly boring, dull writing of the 1970’s era (from what I’ve seen of it, anyway) and appreciate the continuing push towards increased readability and higher journalism standards.  Consumer Reports‘ 1996 redesign was one of the best redesigns, in my opinion, of any magazine ever (this was followed up with at least two redesigns since then, and I still find the current design a bit off-putting.)  “Selling It” is at least as good as it ever was since its 1980’s introduction.  Yes, I am gay for this magazine.  I am amazed how consistent it has been, and I have issues dating back to 1985-86 and one from 1979, when they reviewed records, of all things.

The one ignored part about Consumer Reports, though, is its letter column.  Since the 1980’s, it has been a haven for conservatives and liberals alike to chastise the magazine for its agenda – which has always been a bit liberal, but the magazine’s been benign and level-headed about its stance.  Do I think the push into tax-deductible donations is a good idea for Consumer Reports?  No, but the magazine has always been separate from its spinoffs (many though they are), and I haven’t seen the more militant left-leaning politicos take over Consumers Union yet.  The union has the discipline of staying true to its mandate of fairness, and the letter column is a good sign of that fairness.  The ranting lunatics, the banal nit-pickers and the goofy pissers-up get their say in the lettercol, and that’s what I’m focusing on here.

August 1996

Why people write Consumer Reports, tell the magazine it did a good job and then criticize it for that exact reason stymies the hell out of me.  Again, the Ratings are just guidelines.  Consumer Reports isn’t telling you what beer you should drink.  Criticize Anheuser-Busch for making tasteless beer, and then criticize Consumer Reports for pointing out other beers on the market?  Isn’t that what experts call “sitting on the fence?”

Note that around this time Consumer Reports finally put graphics in the lettercol.  Around this time the magazine also abandoned yearly sequential page numbering, which made sense when Consumer Reports was a newsletter but was just outdated by the time it became a mass-circulation magazine.  For some reason, CR continued the practice until 1995.  From 1996 on, CR has numbered the pages of its monthly issues from 1 to the “books sold by CU” page (said page being recently replaced by an ad for Consumer Reports onHealth) like normal magazines do.  It isn’t an academic journal, now!

October 1991

So why do you read Consumer Reports, then, Stone Cold Buhgawd?  The magazine had been going in its populist direction since sometime in the mid-1970’s when the logo changed and the modern Ratings system finally came to prominence.  In older issues of Consumer Reports, the magazine just rated things from excellent to poor/Not Acceptable in dull text, breaking out the five Ratings dots for the auto issue and little else.  If rating cola – which is bought constantly by people and is a staple of the refrigerator – is frivolous, so is rating fast food, DVD players, chocolates, and the now-constant issues devoted to plasma TV’s and digital cameras.  Honestly, three months never go by these days without a new report on home entertainment equipment, anti-spyware programs and/or cellphones, and it’s irritating.  In this day and age, a cover story on cola would be welcome.

By the way, Consumer Reports‘ cola issue was actually well-done – it documented the history of cola advertising, repeated constantly the mantra that there isn’t much of a difference between brands of cola on the market, and…well, if you want more substantive reporting from early-1990’s CR, there’s “Is Our Fish Safe To Eat?” and the three-part “Wasted Health Care Dollars.”  Nowadays, Jim Guest’s editorials have him vamping for cameras (sometimes in goofy, hey-look-at-me-I’m-photogenic poses) and no one seems to give a rat’s ass, thank God.

June 1990

The sight of Consumer Reports bouncing jokes off its readers is never a good thing – either the letter is so stupid it’s hard to ignore or some nitpicking reader wants a No-Prize from the magazine.  So there aren’t many adjectives to describe a sports car.  Note that Consumer Reports still calls the Mazda Miata STIFF AND JERKY.  Mazda Miata fans might like that in a car, but that’s all the letter-writers (yes, there’s more than this one guy picking nits) are complaining about.  Fuel economy, speed, acceleration, interior – who cares about that shit?  Hey, let’s write to Consumer Reports about how the anonymous writer is stupid for reporting on a car like the magazine reports on every car!  Brilliant!

Some people prefer stiff handling, some prefer smooth handling.  What’s the point of the letter, exactly?  That there are Miata fans out there?  That Consumer Reports should only hire people to test mass-produced sports cars if the hires are fans of mass-produced sports cars?  That people should only buy cars based on personal preference and not on whether the car is going to start running into problems in a few years’ time?  I don’t understand where this attitude comes from.  It seems like the Miata fans found something to overblow, and went to war with the intention of trying to tear Consumer Reports a journalistic warning hole.  It’s not as if the steering wheel busts or the car flips up two of its tires Suzuki Samurai style (and believe me, Suzuki was still trying to sue Consumers Union over that years after everyone forgot about this letter.)  It’s a car evaluation.  If the readers like stiff and jerky cars, they’re going to buy stiff and jerky cars.  If there are a hundred things right about a certain car, the fanboys are going to harp about the few negatives CR points out.  It inflames the arse to an intense degree.

Hopefully this article entertains at least a few people.  Any correspondence…well, you know where it goes.  I’d love for what I do to be widely read for once.  I need to sell a few T-shirts with the words “I AM A MEATL ELLITIST.”  Maybe I need to start a pointless flame war with Calamity Jon Morris or something.  Anything to become one of those “HUGE INTERNET SUPERSTARS” I’ve heard so much about.  Do they exist?

C. Archer
Le Social