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It has been a tough week for Apple. The world's preeminent tech company, which could once do no wrong, finds itself on the defensive amidst a PR nightmare the likes of which it has arguably never experienced before. For that, it can largely blame Consumer Reports.

Although discussion about iPhone 4 reception problems have been ongoing, and class action lawsuits have already been filed against Apple, Consumer Reports' refusal to give the iPhone 4 "recommended" status, its claim that the problems are indeed caused by a hardware issue, and its argument that Apple needs to solve the problem for customers, have clearly forced Apple into a corner from which it must now try to extricate itself.

How is it that Consumer Reports took Apple's iPhone 4 problem and made it go from bad to really, really bad? One word: authority.

Consumer Reports is published by Consumers Union, a not-for-profit organization "...working for a fair, just and safe marketplace for all." Consumers Union has been around since 1936. The first print issue of Consumer Reports came off the printing press in that same year, and since that time, Consumer Reports has built up a reputation as a reliable, trustworthy and totally impartial source of product reviews.

The rapid evolution of technology has seen previously authoritative sources lose their consumer appeal, and in many cases, their credibility. Some consumers, for instance, have come to trust blogs over newspapers when it comes to political news. But despite the rise of online product reviews, social networks and blogs, Consumer Reports has managed to stay relevant. And at a time when newspapers are having a tough time figuring out how to get consumers to pay for their content, ConsumerReports.org reportedly has more than 2m paid subscribers.

The reason: technology may have changed, but what Consumer Reports offers -- professional product reviews that consumers can trust to be unbiased -- has inherent value. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the impact Consumer Reports has had on mainstream perception of Apple and the iPhone 4 highlights the fact that authoritative sources are often more, not less, powerful today. While there can be no doubt that user-generated content has forever changed the way consumers will exchange information about products and services, and 'vote' them up or down, the truth is that we still give a lot of weight to authority.

Thousands of people can complain about the iPhone 4 on Twitter, for instance, but all it takes is one report from Consumer Reports to introduce you-know-what to the fan. There's an important lesson for business executives here: you might still be able to thumb your nose at consumer voices, but you shouldn't underestimate the power of a single authoritative voice. Such voices do still exist, and in these times of significant media fragmentation, they may matter more than ever.

Patricio Robles

Published 15 July, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (5)

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Scott Boren

Great point in CR being unbiased and fair.  And in the report they did say the iPhone was a great piece of equipment but they could not recommend it based on the antenna/reception problem.  Fair and honest

about 6 years ago

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Don

I can't believe that anyone pays attention to CR any more. They always end up giving 2nd rate products from Sears higher rankings than top tier, higher and better quality products. They're also usually many months behind the release dates of products.

about 6 years ago

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Joseph Futral

"what Consumer Reports offers -- professional product reviews that consumers can trust to be unbiased"

They "offer" no such thing. CU _sells_ as unbiased professional product reviews. Frankly, this is arrogance beyond anything one can imagine from Jobs. I gave up on them long ago when they showed their own subjective preferences in car reviews, technology reviews, as well as having many of their "recommendeds", even supposed "best buys" fail miserably.

I pity anyone who still relies on thier recommendations.

Joe

about 6 years ago

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Joseph Futral

Let's change a couple of words in your response:

"Just because you personally don't like some of their recommendations doesn't mean that people don't, or shouldn't, trust how Apple operates."

Based on actual experience, I find Apple far more authoritative and trustworthy than CU.

If you want to say "general pubic" based on 2 mil CR subscribers, how do those numbers stack up against the numbers of iPhone buyers? Which figure is more reflective of anyone's authority? Heck, how many of those CR subscribers bought an iPhone 4? (BTW, have you read the responses CR subscribers are posting on their boards? Who has the authority to them?)

And exactly who has been complaining and whining the most about this supposed problem? Has it been owners of the iPhone? Actual users don't seem to be flocking to Apple for a refund (which Apple offered BEFORE CU's report).

All CU did was jump on the media bandwagon AFTER they called the iPhone 4g the best smartphone available. What does that say about all the other smartphones? If they can't recommend the best, how much worse is everyone else? What does that say about CU?

The only thing that CU "confirmed" was the confusion and obfuscation around the issue created primarily by the media. CU did NOT confirm actual dropped calls/connections from this issue, BTW, which, not being an engineer myself, is the main area I believe their testing failed.

I would be surprised if CU is in anyway responsible for tomorrow's press conference except in as much as they illustrate the FUD, but we'll have wait and see.

Joe

about 6 years ago

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Bangalow Accommodation

A timely reminder that Consumer Reports are very powerful as a single over-riding voice across an issue.

about 6 years ago

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