Telum Talks To... Margaret Rafferty, Managing Editor, CHOICE

Telum Talks To... Margaret Rafferty, Managing Editor, CHOICE

The first edition of CHOICE magazine was sent to 500 subscribers in April 1960. 60 years later, CHOICE has more than 170,000 members. How do you and the team plan to mark the occasion?
Our April issue is a celebration of our 60 years, with a 20-page special inside that captures some of the highlights from our last six decades. Some activity - an open day with tours of our labs, for example - had to be postponed because of the coronavirus crisis, but we’re hoping to pick those up later in the year. 
 
Why do you think it is important for Australians to have access to consumer news free from commercial bias?
Because in a world where trust is at a premium, people want to know that there is an organisation whose sole purpose is to fight for fair, safe and just markets. We're not about making money for shareholders, we're not about pleasing advertisers, we're just about fairness. That’s all. And that’s really powerful. 
 
How do people who have grown up with Facebook, Instagram and other social networks determine what reviews are worth listening to and are Instagram reviewers challenging the CHOICE model?
More and more audiences are starting to ask, what is this person trying to sell me? What do they get from telling me about this product or service? We’re becoming a lot more sophisticated in the way we consume and interpret media and that means we question the motivations behind a review or an article. That’s serving CHOICE well, because we can be completely frank about our purpose.

As for Facebook and Instagram, our social media team are doing a great job at growing our audiences on these platforms and other social media. We also have our own forum, CHOICE.community, where members and the general public can share their thoughts and observations. You can follow CHOICE’s work on Instagram or Facebook.
 
How do you and the team decide what products to review? Do you pick and choose products or do you have companies approaching you proactively to have their products and services reviewed?
Almost everything we review in our labs is purchased by our buyers, because we don’t want special treatment, and we want the experience we have of buying and using a product to match that experienced by the general public. 

As to what we test, we use data from a range of sources - including our own consumer insights team - to track trends and ensure our work matches the needs of the Australian consumer. We also invite people who are interested in us investigating a particular product category to request a test. We can’t test everything but if there is enough evidence of interest we’ll look to include it. 
 
How do you think media coverage of consumer products has changed and where do you see it going from here?
There are a lot of people talking about consumer products but none test products the way we do. I expect we will continue to see lots of people with opinions, but the sorts of lab testing and reviews we do will remain unique. 
 
Choice 60th anniversary coverWhat is or are the worst reviews or ratings CHOICE has given to a shonky product or service? (The ones that still live in infamy in the CHOICE office years later?)
There was a gas heater we tested some years ago that became a flamethrower when the hose disconnected (something that happened all too easily). There was also a toaster that received a shonky a couple of years ago because it just didn’t toast bread - we ended up buying three of them to try to get a result because we couldn’t believe it was so bad, and thought it must have just been a single, bad product. But no, all three were equally useless. 

Can you tell us a bit about the CHOICE testing laboratory, how it works and what kinds of things you test?
When you start work at CHOICE, you get a tour of the labs and it's so interesting. We have kitchen labs where our home economist cooks and tests a whole range of kitchen appliances, we have a fridge lab where we have calibrated spaces in which the fridges are run to ensure the conditions are the same for each one we test. We have a laundry lab, a toy lab, a sound lab, a TV lab - you name it. Our testers often build the equipment we need to properly put products through their paces. It’s endlessly fascinating. 

What kinds of products and services does CHOICE have on its radar to review this year?
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are having to adjust our plans so things are quite fluid right now, but it’s been amazing to watch our reviews and testing team pivot to find new ways to give our members useful insight into the products and services they need. But that’s what CHOICE has always done for the past 60 years - change with the times to give Australian consumers useful, timely information.  

What do you hope every reader will take away from the magazine?
That the work we do is more relevant than ever.

One of our founders, Ruby Hutchinson, said that her motivation in starting the organisation was the powerlessness she felt as a consumer, as a single mother in the 1930s. She recognised that an organisation like CHOICE was needed to help create a better world for consumers and redress some of that power imbalance.

That powerlessness feels all too relevant today. Since the coronavirus crisis began, we’ve received hundreds of emails from our supporters, members and the public calling out examples of blatant price gouging, misleading claims and other poor practice from businesses large and small. It just goes to prove that CHOICE continues to be not only relevant but vitally important.

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