The 2009 CHOICE Shonky Awards

The year’s worst of the worst for all things consumer.
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01 .And the winners are


It’s time once again for the annual CHOICE Shonky Awards, where we reward manufacturers, service providers, government officials and marketers for their usual treasure trove of consumer-related shonkyness.  

In fact, there are so many contenders this year we’re starting to wonder if there are some deliberate attempts to get nominated for the coveted prize. How else would you explain a government minister who canned a much-needed grocery price watch scheme just days before its launch? Or an increasingly despised telecommunications company that decided to hit valued customers with a $2.20 administration fee for the pleasure of paying their bill by mail or in person?


Video: 2009 Shonky Awards Show

Highlights from the 2009 Shonky Awards Show.


Alas, despite their best efforts, neither made the cut this time around. A disappointed Telstra even partially reneged on its $2.20 charge – why put up with all the negative press when there’s no shiny Shonky at the end of it? And riding high on our success in convincing the Big Four banks to reduce unfair penalty fees, we’ve even decided to give their Royal Shonkynesses a break this year. Mostly, anyway.

So, without any further ado, the envelopes please...

The CHOICE Shonky for:

  • Plugging Stuff and Nonsense goes to Reegen Micro-Plug
  • Cheese-Fearing Surrender Monkey goes to Tiffany FP807 Food processor
  • Water at What Price?  goes to Chef’s Cupboard and Massel liquid stocks
  • Honey (Oat crisp), I shrunk the groceries goes to Uncle Toby Oat Crisp Honey cereal
  • Blinding us with dodgy science goes to L’Oréal Elvive
  • Profit Protection Insurance goes to the Credit protection insurance industry
  • Sky high surcharges goes to Qantas and Tiger Airways
  • Teleconfusication goes to Tel.pacific phone cards

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The CHOICE Shonky for Plugging Stuff and Nonsense

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Reegen Micro-PlugReegen-Micro-Plug

Financial crisis, rising electricity costs, global warming … all this bad news is enough to make you reach for your Micro-Plug Power Saver and chill out.

This electronic device claims to reduce energy consumption by up to 30%, so you can plug in your 6.8m plasma TV, turn your air-con down to arctic and watch the savings roll in, guilt-free. There’s just one problem: it’s virtually useless.

CHOICE put it to the test with a fridge, freezer, garden water pump and vacuum cleaner, and used a power meter to measure the kilowatts drawn, with and without the Micro-Plug. The result? No difference.

We also tested it with a drill and recorded a small saving of 5%, so after approximately 10 years of using your drill 24/7 – as you do – you’ll have earned back the $150 price tag.
We contacted the distributor, who claimed we hadn’t tested correctly and that some of our appliances were too powerful or not powerful enough to get any benefit. As proof, they volunteered their own test data, including scans of electricity bills from Rich Rich Fried Chicken Restaurant in Seoul before and after Micro-Plugs were put into in use. Apparently – and we’ll take their word for it, as our Korean isn’t great – the “before” bill was more expensive.

Perhaps we should outsource all our future lab testing to Rich Rich?

The CHOICE Shonky for Cheese-Fearing Surrender Monkey

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Tiffany FP807 Food processor Tiffany-FP807-food-processor

When we tested food processors earlier this year, we included the $40 Tiffany FP807. Granted, it was by far the cheapest on test, but we didn’t expect it to fail so spectacularly at the first hurdle – the cheese-shredding test.

And we’re talking about normal cheese here, not some ancient, diamond-hard specimen mined from the caves of Lascaux. But the Tiffany crumbled faster than you could say “garden variety cheddar”, with the plastic parts of the shaft that are supposed to hold the shredding attachment breaking off during processing.

Figuring we might just have been unlucky enough to have bought the only shonky sample manufactured, we bought another and tested it with something less challenging: mixing mayonnaise. As we marvelled at the perfection of the final product, said product slowly but surely oozed its way out of the bowl and into the electrical components of the processor – a potential electrical hazard.

Slightly dazed but undeterred, we cleaned up and moved on to the cheese test. But alas, machine number two committed suicide in much the same way as number one. Tired of throwing good money after bad, we didn’t persist with a third machine to see how it would handle the real test of a food processor’s mettle: kneading pastry.
(Published in CHOICE, September 2009) 

The CHOICE Shonky for Water at What Price?

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Chef’s Cupboard and Massel liquid stocksChefsCupboardandMasselliquidstocks

Chicken stock is the liquid you get from boiling bits of chicken carcass, vegetables and seasoning in water. These days, most people don’t bother making it themselves – and why would you, when you can buy it ready-made from the supermarket? We took a look at what’s around, and some of the liquid stocks triggered a distinct blip on our Shonky radar.

Overlooking the fact that many chicken stocks have never actually been anywhere near any part of a chicken, what really surprised us was that of the seven brands of liquid stocks we found in shops, only two – both gourmet stocks available at gourmet prices – were genuine liquid from production to shelf.

The other supermarket varieties were reconstituted from powder and/or liquid concentrate. So when you buy some liquid stocks, you’re paying an extra $2.50 per litre for the convenience of pre-added water.

The ones made from powder, ALDI’s Chefs’ Cupboard and Massel, are particularly galling. All that extra packaging of the Tetra Paks and transporting unnecessary water, when you could just as easily add the powder to the water yourself at home.

OK, so it’s not quite up there with water purporting magical mineral properties being shipped from Europe or the Pacific islands. And in these time-poor times, you might consider $2.50 a fair price for saving the few seconds it takes to add your own water. But really, if it’s reconstituted, particularly from powder, shouldn’t this at least be made clear on the label so we can make an informed choice about what we’re really buying?

The CHOICE Shonky for Honey (Oat crisp), I shrunk the groceries

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Uncle Toby Oat Crisp Honey cerealUncle-Tobys-Oat-Crisp-Honey-cereal

What do Cadbury, Nestlé, Sorbent and Smiths all have in common? These iconic brands have hit old age and started shrinking their products. The trouble is, prices haven’t shrunk accordingly. And disguising the shrinkage with extra packaging is fooling no one: we’ve been inundated with correspondence from consumers who are pretty miffed at the deception.

The competition is tough, but we’re giving the award to Uncle Tobys for its Oat Crisp Honey cereal. We found the old and new packets on the supermarket shelf at the same time, which makes any attempted sleight of hand embarrassingly obvious. The new pack is the same height and width as the old, but not quite as deep, so you get 14% less product. And the honey-coated news for consumers is that they’ve also shrunk the pack price – but while the recommended retail pack price has decreased 6%, the unit price has jumped 10%.

The company freely details the changes in pack size, recommended retail and unit price on its website, also explaining why the price increase was necessary (“increased costs of ingredients”, apparently). We reckon consumers are prepared to wear price increases over time, but why the sudden decrease in pack size, if not to confuse? According to the website, it’s to “ensure our products remain affordable”. Yet the serving size hasn’t changed, so you’d have to buy it more often – 17 boxes a year more often, for a family of four. Shonky logic indeed.

Thankfully, you won’t need to take your magnifying glass to the supermarket just yet – the spate of shrinkages seems to have slowed down in the past 12 months. And just in time, it seems, because unit pricing on supermarket shelves will make changing sizes and price confusion far more transparent. Coincidence? We think not.

Video: Tiffany Food Processor

The Tiffany FP807 versus a block of tasty cheese. The cheese wins.

The CHOICE Shonky for Blinding us with dodgy science

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L’Oréal Elvive LOrealElvive

Magazine ads are littered with terms such as “clinically proven”, “dermo-clinical trials” and “in vitro testing”, while tantalisingly obscure substances with names such as “Tetrahydroxypropyl Ethylenediamine”, “Elemi PFA”, ”Oli-vityl”, “Bioxilift” and “Nutrileum” proliferate.

There are even references to so-called clinical trials, with very precise and impressive-sounding results – “0.7mm wrinkle lift corresponding to a 13.2 year decrease in age”. That sort of thing.

It all sounds so credible, they could be advertising a new wonder drug. But these are all just ads for cosmetics, which – if they actually lived up to any clinically meaningful claims – would have to be registered with authorities, which they’re not. But you’d figure that out anyway if you read the fine print and followed the numerous asterisks, which mention disclaimers such as “cosmetic lift only” and “consumer perception study”.

In other words, shonky science.

Garnier, Chanel, RoC, Nivea, SK-II, Elizabeth Arden, Avon …all the big names do it. But the Shonky goes to L’Oréal – because they’re worth it. Its Elvive shampoo, conditioner and serum regime combo comprises three products to give you hairs that’s “4x smoother and sleeker”. But what do they measure it against for the sake of a scientific comparison? Just one product: plain shampoo. No surprises the trio comes up trumps in the comparison. Shonky? You bet.

The CHOICE Shonky for Profit Protection Insurance

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Credit protection insurance industryCredit-protection-insurance-industry

You know when you sign up for a credit card and the provider tries to upsell you extra insurance? Offered by the likes of the Big Four banks and Citibank, it’s called “credit protection cover”, and it’s supposed to cover your credit card, home loan or personal loan debt if disaster strikes and you can’t make repayments. So, one less thing to worry about if you lose your job, get hit by a rampaging camel or die. However, with plenty of hidden catches and traps, our investigation of these services found they registered high on the Shonky barometer.

For a start, it’s very expensive compared with life insurance or income protection insurance. That’s despite the fact that only 15% of income from premiums is returned in claims payouts, compared with about 74% for other types of insurance. In all, less than 1% of people with this insurance make a claim and then, thanks to some pretty tight exclusions in the policy, 12% of these claims are rejected – a much higher rejection rate than for other types of insurance. Credit protection? Sounds like insurers are only protecting their massive profits.

Given the Consumer Credit Code has hardship provisions for personal disasters, consumers would be better off skipping this shonky credit protection insurance and talking to their lenders about a solution.

The CHOICE Shonky for Sky high surcharges

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QantasQantas and Tiger Airways

Thankfully, ads for budget flights that conceal hefty hidden taxes and surcharges have been outlawed, so now the price you see advertised is the price you pay. Well, almost. If you book online, as many do, be prepared to fasten your seatbelt and watch the price soar as the credit card surcharge is added.

Airlines charge flat fees on a per-flight or per-passenger basis – or, in the case of Tiger Airways, both. Depending on the total travel value, these charges are potentially a lot higher than the airlines’ costs. On a $200 credit card booking for a Sydney-Melbourne return flight, Virgin and Jetstar charge $6 and Qantas charges $7.70 – yet Tiger’s fee is $12, or 6% of the fare. That’s a pretty big mark-up on the average fees paid by merchants to process Visa and MasterCard transactions, which are less than 1%, and even on Diners and Amex at about 2%. Internationally, Qantas takes the prize, with a $25 surcharge per passenger, whether it’s a $500 cheapie ticket to Fiji or a $10,000 first-class ticket to Europe. So we’ve decided to award Qantas the Shonky, with Tiger the runner-up.

Airlines deny the surcharge (which Tiger euphemistically calls a “convenience fee”) is ridiculously high. Qantas says it doesn’t even cover costs – it’s apparently not enough to subsidise the merchant service fee liability incurred by the folk at the pointy end of the plane. We concur with the Reserve Bank, which says “there are some cases where surcharges appear considerably higher than these [merchant service] fees. This latter outcome is likely to reflect the market power of the merchants concerned.” In other words, they charge a lot because they can.

If we could just knock this shonky surcharge on the head, we’d only have to worry about fees and surcharges for baggage handling, dodgy meals, hiring headsets, using on board toilets and so on.

The CHOICE Shonky for Teleconfusication

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Tel Pacific phone cardsTel.pacific phone cards

International phone cards are a cheap and convenient way of phoning overseas. But with their ever-changing terms and conditions and all sorts of fees and surcharges, you never quite know what you’ll actually end up paying.

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman has been inundated with hundreds of complaints from beshonkied consumers about inaccurate, incomplete or out-of-date information. This year, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission even took three phone card companies to court for misleading and deceptive conduct. New industry guidelines for phone card companies now mean fees must be clearly displayed in all advertising bumph. However, that doesn’t mean you pay less of them. And what could have been a great victory for transparency was somewhat tempered by the fact that fees and charges aren’t printed on the actual card.

When we looked at the market, we decided that while several cards deserve Shonky commendations for ludicrous fees and charges, phone card company Tel.Pacific should get the award for the sheer number of outrageous fees charged. We found connection fees, disconnection fees, daily service fees from when the card is activated (even if you never use the card), per minute surcharges for using 1300 and 1800 numbers, fee rounding and block rate charges of 10 minutes or more. The type and amount of these extra charges varies from card to card – and Tel.Pacific offers more than 80 different cards, making comparison shopping fairly arduous.

But then, why even bother? Just when you’ve found the optimal combination of call rates and changes, you’ll note that the rates “may change without notice”.

This video was shown at the awards show to highlight some of the reasons why L'Oreal (and, frankly, the rest of the cosmetics industry) deserves a Shonky.

Video: Cosmetics industry parody advert

This advert has been clinically proven to fight the seven signs of aging.

This video was shown at this year's awards ceremony to highlight why this product deserved its Shonky.

Video: Reegen Microplug parody advert

The Reegen Microplug may actually save you energy! But then again, it might not.

This video was shown at this year's awards show to highlight the reasons why the credit protection insurance industry deserves a Shonky.

Video: Credit protection insurance parody

Sally Vague talks to Hoot Review about why she chose credit protection insurance.

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