As Israels economy booms, consumer magazine is born

Customers took whatever they could get, and complaints were met with a shrug of the shoulder at best, open hostility at worst.

But as the country's economy expanded — gradually throughout the '80s then explosively in the '90s — the need for a systematic guide to serve an increasingly confused shopper became more urgent. Consumer items in newspapers and the occasional investigative TV piece barely scratched the surface.

Even before beginning her job as chairwoman of the Israel Consumer Council, Ariella Ravdel-Nedkov was determined to see the launch of a local monthly consumer magazine; in March, she celebrated the publication of the first issue of Baduk ("Tested").

The magazine is a key factor in what Ravdel-Nedkov describes as the wider mission: Increasing public consumer awareness and getting Israeli businesses to be more accountable to their customers.

The magazine tests and rates a variety of products. It also investigates complaints about defective merchandise and updates its readers on consumer news.

"We consider ourselves a Western country," Ravdel-Nedkov says, "so we need to develop a Western consumer culture. I see this kind of magazine as a basic tool for fashioning a clear-thinking and savvy consumer."

Ravdel-Nedkov points out that Israelis who have lived abroad in Britain or the United States quickly learned to make use of veteran consumer publications such as Consumer Reports and Which? before buying cars, appliances and other items. "Then they came back to Israel and couldn't understand why we didn't have anything similar here."

Consumer guides have appeared in Israel before. One was put out by British immigrants in the 1970s, and a series of booklets from the Histadrut was published in the 1980s. But they weren't comprehensive, and weren't set up to carry out independent product testing. There is also the recently launched Objective, but its objectivity has been open to question.

The reason nothing like Baduk has surfaced before is largely a question of money.

This type of magazine simply costs more to put out. If, for example, it is to examine the quality of products thoroughly, it must acquire them at cost (getting them free would compromise the tests' credibility). Furthermore, the magazine has to hire the proper experts with the appropriate laboratory equipment.

Potential revenue for such a publication, on the other hand, is extremely limited. A credible, truly objective consumer magazine must stay afloat solely on income generated from subscriber fees and newsstand sales. It cannot take advertising — normally a magazine's bread and butter — lest customers suspect ratings of being swayed by advertisers.

In larger, wealthier countries like the United States and Britain, the potential subscriber base for major consumer magazines is significant enough to make this tricky financial equation work. In Israel, it is much more difficult, perhaps impossible.

Ravdel-Nedkov's solution was to seek government support for Baduk, at least for the first few years of its existence. After recruiting the support of Industry Minister Natan Sharansky, who in turn lobbied the Finance Ministry for money, she found her funding.

She cuts some of her costs by filling part of the magazine with articles translated from Consumer Reports, Which? and the German equivalent, Test. The magazine has exclusive rights to reproduce these publications' work in full.

Ravdel-Nedkov claims these solutions are preferable to the means Objective uses. It has sought to make ends meet by licensing its name to various products, allowing them to use Objective's ratings in their advertising and promotion.

But such sponsorship contravenes the strict ethical code of magazines like Consumer Reports and Which?, because sponsorship, like advertising, undermines credibility; a magazine could be accused of favoring products whose manufacturers pay the magazine for use of its name.

Not that the solutions Baduk has come up with in order to remain financially solvent are perfect.

While articles looking at the quality of locally made brands of hot dogs, tehina, and sweatshirts and pants for children are relevant and useful, the translated articles from abroad are not always that applicable to local needs.

In the premiere issue, for example, the cover story, translated from Which?, examines different types of sneakers: those designed for running, aerobics, and cross-training. In some of the categories, the information, though thorough and informative, is utterly useless to the Israeli shopper.

One category describes four models of sneakers — only one of which is available in Israel. Another describes six models, only two of which can be found in Israeli stores.

Another article, translated from Consumer Reports and comparing the relative merits of Duracell and Energizer batteries is more worthwhile, but the Israeli consumer isn't given a clue about how their quality and cost-effectiveness stacks up against local brands like Tadiran.

Another potentially troubling issue is whether the magazine's government support might compromise its credibility or limit its ability to criticize government policies and actions. Ravdel-Nedkov insists it will not.

"In this country the government is one of the biggest suppliers of products and services. Our greatest confrontations will probably be with the government, and we won't be shy about pursuing them," she says firmly.

She points to the most controversial article in the first issue as proving the magazine's ability to stand up in the face of extreme pressure.

The article criticizes the very popular National Auction (Michraz Shel Hamedina), a marketing gimmick that has customers paying a fee to bid for cut-rate prices on a range of items. The article came about in response to the large number of complaints and lawsuits the magazine's reporters found had been filed against the auction in the small-claims courts.

Unhappy customers complained that the item they had bid for was a different brand from the product they actually received; and that when their merchandise arrived damaged they had no recourse, since the auction took no responsibility, claiming only middleman status. Other complainants charged that the retail price advertised in the auction was far higher than the price actually charged in stores.

"The auction organization pressured us and even made threats if we went ahead and published the article," Ravdel-Nedkov recalls. "Their lawyer wrote a letter to our board of directors — but we refused to back down. We quoted items from court files which were on the public record.

"I would hope that our magazine will help change the attitude of companies like this, that in a few years their response to such criticism will be an apology and a promise to re-examine and change their policies."

Ravdel-Nedkov also hopes that it will take the Israeli consumer less than five years to discover the usefulness of a magazine like Baduk, and that the number of subscribers and level of income will make government help no longer necessary.

"In wealthy countries like Germany and Belgium, the government has assisted consumer magazines, helped them get their start and sometimes continued supporting them," she says. "The only magazine that has never received government help is Consumer Reports, and it has accepted donations from foundations, something that can raise another set of questions.

"As I see it, our magazine is a worthwhile investment to help protect and defend the Israeli consumer, and, most importantly, to give him the tools to defend himself."