The year was 1959 – Auckland Harbour got a bridge, the All Blacks beat the touring British Lions three tests to one and the first performance of Bruce Mason's one-man play The End of the Golden Weather was staged. The play, part of my compulsory school reading set, was said to represent "authentic New Zealand-based drama". Another body, said to be authentically Kiwi was born that year, Consumer NZ. And it's seen plenty of theatrics since.
In September that year, Prime Minister of the day, Walter Nash, launched what was then called the Consumer Service. The first Consumer magazine published in December 1959 urged consumers to check the wiring of their Christmas tree lights was up to snuff (today LED lights have taken care of that). We had good advice for women when hitching up their nylons – wear soft gloves.
In fact, electrical safety has been a constant – in the 60s and 70s your kettle or toaster could nearly kill you. In a 1965 test of hair dryers, we found all were electrically unsafe! The poor heating test results one manufacturer received so inflamed him, he took out advertising in a national newspaper claiming we'd misrepresented the facts. We hadn't and we stood by our results.
We've been standing by our results ever since.
The first magazine editorial said: "Many customers cannot distinguish differences in quality. Many are susceptible to advertising claims. Consumers often enter into contracts such as hire purchase and insurance without full knowledge of the terms. Little is done to teach people how best to use and protect their earnings."
It went on to say Consumer would: "Provide information to enable consumers to buy more effectively and improve living standards. Specifically, it would be concerned with price, quality, health and safety, labelling and advertising, and contractual relationships, carry out tests to enable goods to be compared in price and quality, press for standards of quality and generally investigate problems raised by consumers."
If you were rewriting the job description in 2019, you wouldn't stray far from those wise words. The only significant difference in product testing today is that 60 years ago almost everything Consumer tested was made here. Today, almost nothing is.
With such a wide-ranging brief there has been few topics Consumer has regarded as taboo. In 1971, we looked at the dodgy alternatives being touted to women unable to get the contraceptive pill (in the 1970s it was still difficult for unmarried women to get the pill). One product, Niozen, a vaginal suppository, claimed it was "universally approved" and provided "confidence without side effects". In fact, it was among the least reliable forms of contraception and the manufacturer had no evidence to support its claim.
Sometimes our exuberance was misplaced. In the 1970s, we argued a Christchurch grocer should be able to sell discounted cigarettes, below the recommended retail price. Why? Because we reckoned the RRP was price-fixing, which reduced competition.
And while our heart was in the right place in 1975 when, in support of International Women's Year, we published a guide to "Women in the Workforce", our paternalistic attitude wasn't. The guide's opening lines read: "Like many women, you may be considering taking a job. The children may have started school and you feel like you would like to earn a little extra money, use some skill you have or maybe just get out of the house to meet more people and live a more interesting life."
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Another constant has been the drive for contracts written in plain English, similarly the terms and conditions. We know most of you don't read the fine print but for those who make the effort, they should at least be able to understand what's before their eyes. Here's a classic from 1981: "…in witness whereof these presents have been executed the year and day first hereinbefore mentioned…" I won't force you to read further. Essentially it means "agreed and signed".
In 2015, we finally saw the end of unfair contract terms in all but insurance contracts. No longer can the gym move across town making it impossible for you to continue your routines, and force you to keep paying fees. Nor can your electricity provider sign you up on terms which give it all-encompassing rights, and you not so much.
Strangely the insurance industry has been able to successfully argue for the retention of unfair contract terms. You have to ask why an industry that asserts it is customer-centric would want that. But happily, that's all about to end. The Government is passing long-overdue legislation to better protect consumers when they sign up for any kind of insurance. A 2019 Consumer investigation found one in four people had problems with their insurer. The most common complaint was having a claim unreasonably declined.
And there's plenty of bad insurance for sale. The life insurance industry has had a deserved telling off from the Financial Markets Authority and the Reserve Bank. We've been saying for years this kind of insurance is often a rort – 200 per cent commissions for the sales reps and a complete lack of care for the customer. But new regulations will ensure, among other things, a duty of care for the consumer.
Year in and year out for the past 60 years, our bread and butter has been our extensive programme of researching and testing products and services. There's nothing we don't know about fridges, freezers, washing machines, dryers and dishwashers. We read the fine print so if it's possible to know (and sometimes it's not) we know what's in your dishwashing liquid, household cleaner and wipes. We know when claims are flimflam. It's probably only Consumer staff who have the pleasure at parties of being pestered about what we reckon of the latest printer, smartwatch or oven.
And we have fun. In 2006, we tried detox kits to lessen the effects of an indulgent Christmas and New Year. Sadly we reckoned you'd be better off saving your money. There was no evidence they worked. If you needed a "cleanse" we suggested plenty of fresh air, exercise and water. Over the years we haven't found any evidence facial moisturisers do much to stave off the wrinkles and next year we will be investigating the injectable fillers industry.
Of course, there are challenges to the way we go about our testing. Today a consumer can consult Google on anything. The internet is awash with free reviews on just about everything. How do we compete? It's hard. But our own research shows we are a much-trusted brand. Your kettle might not kill you but your pocket might be seriously burned if you make the wrong decision on a financial product or service. And as fake news and reviews proliferate, Consumer can look to 60 years of getting it right on behalf of consumers.
Like other modern social enterprises, we use data to help us decide on what and where to put our energies. A recent test of sunscreens, which showed nearly half failed their SPF claims, saw a record number of visitors to consumer.org.nz.
Our reports on electric bikes and cars are some of the most popular we publish.
And what of the new frontiers of consumer detriment? Climate change and the claims being made for green products, and your own right to data privacy loom large. Next year Consumer will be researching and publishing on the waste created by appliances that give up the ghost before their time. We reckon the good old days of being able to either repair your toaster or get it repaired should return. Enough of chucking out appliances, for new replacements. And we're taking a close look at a consumer data right – that is the right for you to share your data with only those whom you wish. And an obligation on those collecting your data to tell you why and for what it will be used.
And as more baby boomers move into retirement villages, we're taking a close look at the standard contracts being offered and our old foe, unfair terms.
But that is all for tomorrow. There's a great line in the song Forever Young, which goes: "It's so hard to get old without a cause." Consumer has no shortage of causes and that's why even though it has just turned 60 it remains forever young.