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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 October 2007, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Profile: Which? The Golden Years
By Clare Matheson
Business reporter, BBC News

Which? founder Michael Young
Mr Young's consumer advice idea was dismissed as "hopeless"

Michael Young may be seen as the founding father of Which? magazine, but his accomplishment owes a lot to an American couple.

Dorothy and Ray Goodman set up their own group, Consumers, in the mid-1950s after finding there was nowhere to turn to for advice on big household purchases.

Back in the 1950s, after the austerity of the war years, a consumer society was burgeoning again in Britain.

Rationing had ended and amid an era of full employment people were spending more on goods for the home.

The newly-wed Goodmans were swept up in this new wave of spending, but had no idea which central heating or steam iron to buy.

By January 1956, the Goodmans and a group of friends had begun working on a dummy issue of a consumer advice magazine.

But with no money for publishing or testing, they approached Michael Young with their idea.

'Hopeless' idea

Mr Young, who was research director for the Labour Party, had previously put forward a similar idea about setting up the Consumer Advisory Service for consideration in the party's 1950 manifesto.

Which? cover autumn 1958
The magazine got off to a tough start in its early days

The idea was rejected by Harold Wilson, who later became prime minister, as "hopeless".

But politicians were not the only obstacle. Conventional wisdom in the UK also suggested a consumer magazine could fall foul of costly libel laws.

Meanwhile, fate had dragged the Goodmans back to the US - with Ray appointed to a post at the World Bank - and all they left behind was a dummy version of their magazine looking at diverse subjects like prams, heating and razor blades.

Eventually in October 1957 Mr Young produced the first Which? magazine, from a garage in Bethnal Green, east London, to a lukewarm reception.

Inauspicious start

Set-up and testing costs meant he built up debts of 60, while not one subscription to the quarterly magazine was sold.

But with some swift press publicity favours, Which? managed to pick up 7,000 subscribers in a week.

It kept gaining readers, and when Marks & Spencer bought subscriptions for its board, Mr Young knew he had made it.

Which? ballpoint pen test
1958 - Hotpoint Countess washing machine
1966 - Bush TV 135U, Suffolk Galaxy rotary mower
1977 - Creda Starlight 40049 electric cooker
1987 - Toshiba KT 4086 personal stereo cassette player
1997 - Panasonic MC E863 cylinder vacuum cleaner
2007 - Zanussi-Electrolux ZFC35C chest freezer

Since reviewing electric kettles in the first edition, it has gone on to check out cars, champagne, prams and washing machines.

Over the years it has also taken on the nation's trends - doling out advice on contraceptives, computers and mobile phones.

Its tests have also become more complex and in-depth.

They have been farmed out to an outside agency working at Which?'s own purpose-built facility in Milton Keynes, after being brought in house in 1970.

As well as a tough start, it has also had hiccups along the way.

Among the publications it has closed down are Health Which? and Check It Out - a sort of Which? for teens.

Even a credit card it introduced was later withdrawn.

While it is rare for a word to be spoken against the not-for-profit publication, critics do say it has relied on inertia to keep its membership numbers up.

As it is not sold in shops, it relies on customers signing up for a free three months trial and then forgetting to cancel if they are unsatisfied.

Which? has also come under fire for past promotional campaigns, which used junk mail, and some of its prize draws drew accusations of compromising its independence.

Shopper's favourite

Which? car tests 1999
Its independent car tests are still going on after starting in 1962

However, over the years Which? has evolved from a consumer advice magazine to a consumer champion.

The name has become so powerful that the organisation behind the publication, which began life as the Association for Consumer Research and then became the Consumers' Association, has now changed its name to Which?.

Over the years, it has campaigned on issues as diverse as compulsory seatbelts in cars, an independent regulator for estate agents and even a reduction in the lead used in children's toys as early as the 1960s.

Meanwhile, the government recognised its transition to consumer champion by granting it special super-complaint powers, which means it can make official complaints to government departments on behalf of consumers.

Inside the Which? lab
03 Oct 07 |  Magazine
What do you know about Which?
07 Oct 07 |  Business


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