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Why 2014 is better than 1978

Over the last three decades, products have gotten safer and shoppers wiser. Call it the Age of the Empowered Consumer.

Published: July 2014
A late-70s gas shortage led to long lines and pushed automakers to boost fuel economy.

Feeling nostalgic for the good old days? Then think back to the late 1970s. Gas lines stretched for blocks at service stations thanks to a revolution in Iran and an energy crisis. Gas-guzzling cars were common: The midsized 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass (shown below) we tested got 11.8 mpg in city driving. Inflation sat at an uncomfortable 7.6 percent, compared with about 2 percent today.

The last 35 years have seen a revolution in consumer rights, protection, and choice. There has been an explosion in the variety of products available, the complexity of those products, and the speed with which they hit the shelves.

We picked 1978 as a landmark date because that was also the start of a new era at Consumer Reports; it was the year that our president, Jim Guest, joined the organization as a member of the board of directors. Now, as Guest prepares to retire from Consumer Reports after more than 35 years with the organization, including the last 13 as Consumer Reports' president, we’re looking back at how much things have changed for all of us.

Cars squeeze out more gas mileage

Fuel efficiency

In 1978, the average price of a gallon of gas ranged from 65 cents to 71 cents ($2.36 to $2.58 in today’s dollars), and half of all oil used in the country went for driving. Consumer Reports derided the government’s fuel-efficiency numbers as “exaggerated figures achieved in static tests that don’t accurately reproduce what happens in real driving.” Cars that year had to meet government fuel-economy standards of 18 mpg average over their fleet. But subcompacts weren’t that impressive; a VW Rabbit diesel took 21.5 seconds to reach 60 mph. Standards increased to 27.5 mpg for 1985 cars but stayed there for many years. Consumer Reports pushed to set the bar higher, filing comments and testifying for more stringent requirements. In 2012, the government announced new standards that will require fleets to average 54.5 mpg by 2025.  

Vehicle rollover

Sport-utility vehicles, or SUVs, have grown in popularity over the last decades. But their higher center of gravity and dimensions also led to questions of stability in certain situations. Consumer Reports first petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for a stability standard in 1988 to keep rollover-prone vehicles off the market. But it wasn’t until 2000 that Congress directed NHTSA to develop dynamic rollover tests, with major support from Consumer Reports. We testified about consumers’ need for information based on dynamic rollover tests so that they could choose the safest SUVs, and we applauded the testing protocol that NHTSA announced in October 2003. Over the following years, we strongly pushed for mandatory electronic stability control, which dramatically reduces the risk of rollover in all vehicles, especially SUVs. Thanks in large part to our prodding, the agency required ESC starting with 2012 models.

Car seats

When Consumer Reports started testing child safety seats in 1972, we rated 12 of the 15 models Not Acceptable. Partly in response to our findings then and in subsequent years, the government mandated that as of Jan. 1, 1981, manufacturers had to certify that their child safety seats would pass “a rigorous crash test.”

Health reform becomes a reality

Health coverage

In 1978, Consumers Union asked then-president Jimmy Carter to move the country toward a national health insurance system. (It’s a message we have been sending for decades.) Now, 35 years later, health reform is up and running. To make the case in 2008, Consumer Reports outfitted a 32-foot RV, staffed it with three advocates, and logged miles in 47 states. That “Cover America Tour” documented consumers’ experiences as part of a larger effort to improve the quality, safety, and accessibility of health care, long a mission of Consumer Reports. The advocates covered 17,620 miles, speaking with thousands of ordinary people who had extraordinary stories about a failed system. And in 2010, the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, ensuring health care choice for millions of Americans who had previously been shut out of the market.

Hospital infections

As many as 440,000 Americans die each year as a result of preventable harm that happens while they’re hospitalized. And a significant portion of those deaths are the result of hospital-­acquired infections. In 2003, our Safe Patient Project began as a campaign to push hospitals to publicly report their infection rates, helped by the personal stories of consumers. Now, 32 states and the federal government require some level of disclosure.

Drug evaluations

Prescription drugs, supplements, and vitamins grab an astonishing share of consumers’ health dollars. In 1990 Consumer Reports wrote that despite a scandal over payoffs at the Food and Drug Administration, generic drugs were safe and effective, and could save half of the cost of brand-name versions. Our Best Buy Drugs project now helps millions of consumers save money and find the best medication for their condition.

Less danger in home and yard

Lawn mowers

Concerned about an estimated 161,000 people per year sustaining injuries, including amputations, because they came into contact with a moving blade, the Consumer Product Safety Commission selected Consumers Union to develop a new safety standard for lawn mowers. Among the features recommended by Consumers Union that became mandatory under the final standard was a “dead-man control” that must be held down to allow the blade to turn and that will, when released, stop the blade within 3 seconds. In 1983, despite almost a decade of opposition by the outdoor power equipment industry, consumers were finally able to buy lawn mowers with the new features.

Appliance efficiency

In 1975, Congress ordered the Department of Energy to set mandatory standards for energy use by major household appliances. But the DOE refused, saying standards wouldn’t be economically justified or result in a “significant” energy savings. It took 10 more years, and a lawsuit from Consumer Reports and others, before a federal court decision in 1985 that said, just do it. Almost 30 years later, evolving energy standards have brought significantly more efficient washers, dishwashers, air conditioners, and refrigerators.

Kerosene heaters

Consumers Union alerted the CPSC in 1982 that unvented kerosene heaters were inherently dangerous because of their “potential both as a fire hazard and as a source of indoor air pollution” and asked that the CPSC re-evaluate their safety. The agency’s investigation led to the same conclusion, and the industry trade association agreed to implement safety features based on our recommendations.

Mowers in the '70s lacked some safety features. Airline deregulation changed how we fly.

The phone and computer revolutions

Deregulation

In 1978, the telecommunications revolution was just beginning. AT&T and the Bell system rented equipment and sold services to more than 80 percent of the country’s telephone users, perhaps because incentive programs spurred representatives to oversell. Our secret shoppers called 36 representatives across the country and asked them what to get for a one-room apartment; some were honest, others said that we needed to rent three push-­button (extra cost) Trimline (extra cost) phones. When buying equipment started to become an option, we provided a cost comparison to help consumers decide whether to rent or buy.

Computers

Consumers were overwhelmed with the many choices they faced in shopping for a computer. We showed them how to assemble a system for less than $1,000, a far cry from the steep $3,000 ($6,033 in today’s dollars) cost of a high-end IBM-compatible model.

Cell-phone number portability

Once upon a time, cell-phone users forfeited their number when they switched to a new carrier. It was such a hassle that people tended to stick with a carrier, despite lousy service. Through our “Escape Cell Hell” campaign, consumers sent more than 22,000 letters to Congress urging it to pass number portability. It became a reality in 2003.

The last three decades have seen many changes For consumers. Cars such as the Oldsmobile Cutlass didn’t get great gas mileage. Mowers in the 1970s lacked safe discharge chutes and dead-man safety controls. Rented telecom equipment such as AT&T’s Princess phone was commonplace, computers became consumer items, and airline deregulation changed the way we fly.

Sounding alarms on food safety

Chicken testing

Our 1978 tests found that up to half were contaminated with human or animal fecal matter, and many tested positive for E. coli and salmonella. Our tests through the years also found campylobacter. We lobbied the government for limits on that bacteria; they were finally set in 2010. Not all is rosy. Our February 2014 test results still turned up fecal contaminants. Also present: bacteria that were resistant to antibiotics.

Arsenic in food

Tests of apple and grape juices in 2011 found that contamination from arsenic was at worrisome levels, with no federal limits to govern it. Our tests have also turned up inorganic arsenic at troublesome levels in other foods, including rice. Consumer Reports experts urged the Food and Drug Administration to set standards for those foods, and in July 2013 the agency announced its proposal to limit the amount of arsenic in apple juice.

Back in the 1970s
Computers became consumer items. Rented phones were common. Many cars got low mpg.

More money choices

Airline deregulation

A round-trip “Super-Apex” fare from NYC to London in 1979 was $1,401 in today’s dollars. You had to book at least 21 days in advance and stay seven to 180 days. Airline deregulation changed the way carriers could set fares, pick up or drop routes, and treat bumped passengers.

Financial oversight

The financial crisis of 2008 brought hardship to consumers and a hard line from Consumer Reports. In his December magazine column, Jim Guest said, “We’re not promoting needless regulation; we’re calling for astute analysis, increased assessment of risk, and reasonable regulatory oversight.” We supported the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, established in 2010.

A leading man

Jim Guest (right) says that soon after he joined the board of Consumer Reports in 1978, “survival was our biggest challenge.” The organization’s financial reserves were frighteningly low, and its future uncertain. When he became president in 2001, he made changes that expanded our impact in the marketplace and led to major growth. What he didn’t change was a commitment to Consumer Reports’ core values, including independence and a strict ban on donations from industry.


Health care reform was one of Guest’s top priorities. He led the organization’s efforts to get pro-consumer provisions in the Affordable Care Act and, by enlisting consumers, put human faces on an otherwise faceless political battle. Consumer Reports, Guest wrote, “believes that the debate over health care must have at its heart the needs of consumers.”


Consumers’ finances were every bit as important to Guest, who led the organization’s fight for transparency and fair practices in credit cards, bank accounts, and mortgages. “Consumers cannot possibly be good marshals of their own money without a clear picture of the full costs and benefits of financial ­products,” he wrote. “We need ­regulation because an unregulated industry has failed to be straight with customers.”


In 2007 and 2008, millions of toys and children’s products were ­recalled for excessive lead and other hazards. Consumer Reports strongly supported—and helped develop—a law that lowered lead limits, set mandatory standards for infant products, and created a database where consumers could report and research safety concerns. Guest called it “a problem that should have been resolved decades ago.”


Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the September 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.



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