• May 13, 2010
The free press? It ain't so free. It's no secret that most publications face rising costs and declining revenues, both of which combine to create bottom lines that would shiver even cash-strapped Chrysler's timbers. So it should come as no real surprise that Consumers Digest makes manufacturers pay for licensing associated with the publication's illustrious "Best Buy" awards. But that hasn't stopped the Wall Street Journal from drawing a correlation between the number of nods the magazine hands out and how much cash the winners spend on licensing and advertising.
Here's how it works: Consumers Digest hires freelance auto writers to review vehicles each year. Those vehicles are supplied by manufacturers through short-term loan agreements. Once all of the reviews are in, the editors choose which vehicles are deserving of a "Best Buy" award and which aren't. Once the awards are announced, manufacturers typically want to toot their own horn and brag in advertising. Thing is, Consumers Digest won't allow the carmakers to use their name without paying the piper first. In this case, that means handing over $35,000 for the mention of a first-place win.

Consumers Digest isn't the only publication handing out awards that operates with this business model, but the Wall Street Journal compares the practice to Consumer Reports – a squeaky-clean institution that buys every car it tests from dealerships and refuses to allow manufactures to cite its awards. It's not exactly an apples to apples job.

Even so, the article notes that the number of "Best Buy" awards handed to General Motors increased by 17 percent compared to last year, and that Consumers Digest recommended around half of the Toyota vehicles it tested even in the midst of a wave of recalls from the company.

The Wall Street Journal piece does do a fine job of underscoring the fact that everything you read is best taken with a healthy helping of skepticism. Any publication that ranks products walks a fine line between credibility and keeping the lights on. Consumers would do well to remember that.

[Source: Wall Street Journal]


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  • 31 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      Consumer reports won't allow any auto manufacturers to use their name or the fact that Consumer reports recommends said product.

      Food for thought...
        • 4 Years Ago
        Reading the buff book (C/D, R&T, etc.) reviews *and* the Consumer Reports reviews are the way to go. That way you get to see how the drive, perform, etc., and get an insight into their safety, reliability, etc.

        I don't always like CR's picks, but they do poll readers and do other research to let buyers know how good a given car is in the long run.
      • 4 Years Ago
      SEVERAL YEARS AGO CAR AND DRIVER HAD THEIR ANNUAL CAR RATINGS THAT I FOUND MOST INTERESTING. THE TOYOTA MATRIX WAS 4.5 AND THE PONTIAC VIBE WAS 2.5. SAME ASSEMBLY LINE, SAME CAR, DIFFERENT SKIN. 2.0 DIFFERENCE. YEAH, THE MAGS GO WITH THE CASH. NO LIES, JUST MAKE SURE YOU GET THE GRIFT.
        • 4 Years Ago
        IIRC that was Motor Trend's COTY issue, and the different ratings were down to the Matrix test car being an XRS, and the Vibe being a base 1.8 auto.

        The editors mentioned the interchangeability of these ratings in the text, but it puzzled me too at first.
      • 4 Years Ago
      It doesn't surprise me, especially when seeing any GM brand commercial and noting that they all seem to have the "Consumer's Best Buy" award.

      Ghost marketing is all it is... smoke and mirrors.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @Analyst

        There's nothing wrong with no Toyotas making the list. They're all insanely boring(crap) to drive anyway.
        • 4 Years Ago
        • 4 Years Ago
        You know there is something wrong when there are several GM cars awarded "Best Buys," and zero Toyotas.

        And nice Best Buy's they have... Ram 1500, Ford F-150, Silverado 1500 were all "Best Buy's".
      • 4 Years Ago
      I thought this was fairly common knowledge. This is how companies like Consumers Digest, JD Power, etc. make money. They're not doing it just for the "good" of the buying public.

      It doesn't necessarily mean that their choices/reports/awards are biased unless they are picking companies based on which ones are most likely to pay to use their names in advertising.
        • 4 Years Ago
        BTW, some interesting JD Power ratings...
        2006 Audi A6->Long term predicted reliability of "3" where 2 is the lowest score.
        2007 Audi A6...award recipient...->Long term predicted reliability of 5.
        Interesting how JD Power's supposed long term ratings can skyrocket when you're an award winner, lol.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @ CarZ

        my thoughts exactly.
      • 4 Years Ago
      "The Wall Street Journal piece does do a fine job of underscoring the fact that everything you read is best taken with a healthy helping of skepticism."


      Reminds me of George Carlin:
      "The following statement is true. The previous statement is false."
      • 4 Years Ago
      There is a riposte to all this crap of course.

      The blogosphere and the countless reviews of real-world drivers. Edmunds does offer some lists of their preferred cars, but whats far more valuable are the numerous customer reviews of real products for each given automobile. Its encouraging to see real consumer opinion, even if its not necessarily knowledgeable or even contextual - at least you can be fairly certain its real.

      I see potential for a web review aggregator that can compile all the reviews on a given product from the diaspora of sites then chart them. Those would be real "awards" with value.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I generally take an owner review with about the same grain of salt as I do most car rag reviews. All to often I either see somebody posting a review with an axe to grind, or the reviewer was just plain clueless as the real purpose of the product (to broadly put things).

      • 4 Years Ago
      I've always considered the Consumers Digest awards to be fake. I think they intentionally try to mislead buyers into confusing them with Consumer Reports.
        • 4 Years Ago
        They do try to confuse the two. But they're not the only one to charge. When I was with an anonymous manufacturer's marketing department, we used to authorize HUGE checks for JD Power and Strategic Vision. Oh yes, those awards are *paid for.*

        And if you think that's corrupt, you should see what we used to pay to certain offshore accounts to keep the good press rolling. It's harder to do now with Sarbones/Oxley on the books but C&D and others were paid for as well.

        One bad review and the checks stopped.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Same thing happened when they reviewed the Saturn ION.

        I can't remember what issue it was, but I remember spotting a tiny ad in the back of Motor Trend (between the Rogaine and the mail-order Viagra) in the '90s about their COTY award, encouraging automakers to contact them about "potential business opportunities."

        That's why the talk about Consumer Reports' "bias" amuses me. Of course they have biases, they're human, but so are the writers at all the other mags--and the enormous ad-revenue pressures make their "bias" ten times worse.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I knew various awards were BS when these awards came out.

        Edmunds.com as the "Best Full-Size Truck." - Nissan Titan
        January 2007: Edmunds.com places the Tundra 1st
        Motor Trend declared the Tundra its 2008 Truck of the Year
        August 2007: Consumer Reports rates the Tundra as the 2nd
        March 2007: Popular Mechanics ranks the Tundra 2nd

        Now I'm not bashing import full sized trucks here but I think we can all agree that!

        A: The Nissan Titan is not even close to being an F150 or Sierra
        B: The Tundra can't come close to an F150 or Sierra.

        I'd put the two of them in 4th and 5th place all day long.
        1 & 3 Depending on use F150 or Chevy / GM
        3 Dodge Ram
        4. Nissan Titan
        5. Toyota Tundra (I'd give it sixth place if I could)

        One can argue that a Toyota engine is reliable! Not any more than an Ford or Chevy! And if your frame can't hold together (structurally, not the rust thing) then you can have all the drivetrain in the world, if there's nothing to hold it or your frame is twisted, you're dead in the water!

        PS... If the F150 Raptor could be added in the list for general purpose, it would have the #1 spot for a while... lol it's sweet!
        • 4 Years Ago
        Didn't GM cut advertisements and other revenue to C&D when John Philips wrote that hilarious thrashing of the 2002 Cadillac Escalade EXT? Shortly after publication, C&D outright deleted the article from their website. (Funny thing is they deleted the HTML file but the images from the article were/are still on their server. I had made a copy of the HTML file and the images still load.) Best review ever.

        Anyways, money can influence reviews and reviews can influence the money. That's why honest critical opinions are hard to come by in much of our media.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Its a tricky business. Consumer Reports takes the highest road... but there are ethical middle grounds.

      Some publications do a better job than others. Consumer Digest obvious does a poor job, regardless of the actual fees involved (which are pretty small actually!)

      Here's the issue with Consumer Digest for me

      In the "Small SUV/CUV" area they claim that the Equinox, Escape, Terrain, Rouge, Tribute, Mariner, SRX, and XC60 ... are all "best buys"
      errr... I find that a little hard to believe, clearly many of these were added just for the payout.

      In contrast, Car and Driver's 10 best list... is -10- cars only. Payouts might occur, but Car and Driver can set up a system where payout pressure doesn't matter as much

      • 4 Years Ago
      I learned in the 80's to take everything 'the' car mags said w/ a grain of salt... and later CR... there's just something hokey there. I've learned to rely on the owners on the street... at the gas pump or store and independent mechanics for real evaluation and opinion. I look at it this way... if our government can be bought off... a magazine oughta be a piece 'o cake.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Aren't the Motor Trend _____ Of The Year awards a money generator for MT, too? I've never taken their awards seriously.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I'm sure this is true. It would certainly explain the award the early 90's Chevy Caprice won...
      • 4 Years Ago
      Many of the articles in the automotive press are thinly disguised advertisements.
      • 4 Years Ago
      You can rest assured that EVERY industry award you see (excluding CR's) is bought and paid for. Motor Trend is probably the most notorious, and its not just about the fees paid directly by the manufacturer. One of their biggest factors is how large of an ad campaign the manufacturer promises to run about their award, aka more free advertising for MT legitimizing their worthless honor.

      And its not just the vehicle awards - working in manufacturing I have learned what a huge scam the various productivity awards are (ie Harbour, etc). Which is weird because consumers have no idea what these awards are for - the only real reason they exist is for senior managers to have a bullet point on their resume and justify their fat bonus.

      JD Power various awards are pretty questionable (APEAL award anyone?) but what they do sell the OEM's for their $$ is a LOT of good quality and demographic data which many of the lazier manufacturers are too incompetent and/or lazy to put together themselves.
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