CHOICE 50th anniversary

See the changing face of CHOICE over 50 years, as we roll back the decades.
 
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  • Updated:23 Mar 2010
 

01.How it all began - the Sixties

Ruby Hutchison

Ruby Hutchison and the birth of CHOICE

Consumers in post-1945 Australia were as innocent as a kid in a toy shop — and had about as much guidance and protection, too. A female member of the Western Australian upper house, the first woman to be elected to that body (in 1954) — Ruby Hutchison, MLC — had been receiving rather a lot of complaints from her constituents about the shoddy quality and poor value for money of goods. She was also a single mother (with seven small children) and so was well aware of how women suffered if they were continually ripped off.

She already knew of overseas consumer organisations — the US Consumer Research was established back in 1929 (always keen manufacturers and consumers, those Americans) and the British Consumers’ Association in 1956 — so she found out how they worked with a view to creating something similar in Australia. 

Talking over tea

In 1959 Ruby packed a bag and travelled to Sydney to discuss her idea with a group of like-minded concerned citizens, including Roland Thorp, Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Sydney. Originally from Britain, he’d been subscribing to Which? magazine (produced by the UK Consumers’ Association) since its inception, so he knew what they were looking for. Discussions over tea culminated some weeks later in a public meeting on 17 September 1959 at the Sydney Town Hall and the Australasian Consumers’ Association was born. (‘Australasian’ because they hoped to include New Zealand.) 

Ruby and Roland's primary aim was to produce a magazine that would inform consumers about their rights and about products, their value and safety. Advertising was also a concern, described rather succinctly by a Council member as “non-informative, meaningless, misleading, false, deceptive and fraudulent”. 

Amazing first year

This new consumers’ organisation, driven by a small, deeply committed and highly focused group, achieved a staggering amount in the first five years, particularly considering the time in which it was founded and the sheer size of the country — not to mention its staunch financial independence. The latter was crucial to the organisation: the Council believed it should take no funding from government or outside bodies and no advertising in the magazine. And Ruby insisted that products to be tested be purchased anonymously — the same as any consumer. And it’s still the same today. 

They also encountered considerable ridicule from manufacturers and retailers, as well as the media. In its first year alone, the ACA Council launched the magazine (April 1960) and distributed it to 500 subscribers (within two weeks, they had 900 subscribers); and by June they’d increased membership to 3,200. At the end of March, beginning of April they were represented at an international Conference of Consumers’ Associations in The Hague. There, along with the US, UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, Australia was a founder member of the International Organisation of Consumers Unions (IOCU — now Consumers International, CI). 

In August 1960, with the second issue of CHOICE magazine, they conducted their first readership survey. In September, a year after the organisation’s inception, they took a lease on their first premises, in the inner city suburb of Surry Hills; and by 1961 they’d established a reference library for members. 

Promotion and accelerated growth 

These dedicated volunteer workers let no opportunity pass to publicise the organisation and magazine and increase membership. They offered gift subscriptions (a subscription as a wedding gift was heavily promoted); Thorp appeared on TV — very new technology then; they arranged publicity in other magazines like the NRMA Open Road and the widely circulated Women’s Weekly. They also used radio (a daily spot for 13 weeks on 2UW ); arranged profile pieces in other popular magazines like New Idea; used the film Consumers Want to Know, produced by the US Consumers’ Union. In her belief that the organisation had a strong commitment to women, Ruby Hutchison and Roland Thorp addressed the National Council of Women in June 1960. She also addressed the Feminist Club and the Victorian, SA and WA branches of the Housewives’ Association.In December 1960 they urged existing readers to help increase subscriptions, telling them that to produce three to six issues a year the ACA needed 10,000 members. They didn’t have long to wait: in December, membership was 4,700. By April 1961 it was 10,000 and the end of 1961 it was double that. Talk about filling a niche!


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Video: 50th Anniversary - 1960s

CHOICE TV celebrates 50 years of CHOICE with this five-part series, kicking off with the sixties, where it all began.

 

1960

About 20,000 copies of CHOICE magazine were printed, four issues in the first year. In the launch issue, a woman photographed peering into a freezer (below) complained she hadn’t given permission to appear. We appeased her with a free year’s subscription (then a hefty £1).
We tested “slimming cures” (Turkish baths and corsets got the thumbs down) and aspirin in Roland Thorp’s lab. However, ACA was running lean – we had £50 in the kitty. A universal theme emerged – comparison of groceries with unit pricing (50 years on, this is legislated, partly thanks to us). Membership stood at 7500.

1961 launch issue - 1960

In our “biggest project yet”, we tested cigarettes for nicotine and tar levels on our special “smoking machine”, which puffed away for months. We cautiously concluded “studies tended to emphasise a connection between excessive smoking and arteriosclerosis and pulmonary emphysema”. On the subject of lung cancer? We said: “Time alone will show whether there really is a risk between the two occurrences.” But we did reassure ACA’s more macho members that smoking seemed to have little effect on virility.
We got in a lather over detergents. “A bewildering array of value-for-money options (‘save 2/11’, ‘great free gift’) confronts the housewife whenever she shops.” We concluded that “it‘s pointless to evaluate which detergent gives best value for money, since prices are arbitrary and change from week to week”.
Transistor radios were tested – but which from the mind-boggling array of 80 models available? Similarly, ballpoint pens were brand new and we scribbled away, putting them through their paces.
Membership passed 20,000. “Official bodies and manufacturers are taking notice of our tests and even consulting us from time to time,” CHOICE enthused.

1962

“Look how fit he is; he’s as brown as a berry” – ACA debunked the link between a good tan and good health as we slip-slapped suntan lotions: “None make you tan; they only slow down burning, so you can tan less painfully.” However, we did suggest “too much exposure to UV rays can have harmful effects and produce conditions that may lead to skin cancer”.
ACA received many enquiries about goods with tricky guarantees, particularly electrical appliances. Our advice? “Your primary contract is with the shopkeeper and your legal rights are with him… you will be best advised to make your purchases from stores of good repute.”
We made submissions to the Packaged Goods Inquiry. Packages are “the silent salesman”, we declared, “but too many are deceptive and misleading, and do not give us the information we want”.
On a membership roll, we proclaimed we wanted a market where “Best Buys replace best-sellers”. Six issues a year of CHOICE now.

1963

We continued our campaign against dodgy packaging, with a celebrity on our side: “Mr. Kennedy, president of the USA, believes consumer protection is a first order of national community business. So does ACA, and we have urged for the setting up of the Australian Packaging Board.”
Our lifejacket test left us with a sinking feeling – we could only recommend one out of 36. We also tested rifle cartridges, “because .22 calibre rifle ammunition is very popular for light sporting use”. We measured for accuracy, velocity and the amount of powder each contained.
Australians embraced technology – at a cost. A TV was the equivalent of $160 – 10 weeks’ salary for a secretary.
CHOICE promoted family planning: “The pill, one of the most effective means of birth control, is now available on the prescription of a doctor.”
But Women’s Lib was but a dream, as our washing machine test revealed. “A fully automatic washing machine represents the most advanced device available to the housewife to lessen her daily labours.” In 1960, 31,000 machines were sold; in 1962, sales rocketed to 65,000. We tested stockings, “a maiden’s dream”, rating them on cost per hour – expensive lasted about 80 hours, cheapies 45.
“The mail pours in,” said our May cover. “1000 new subscribers join ACA every week.”

1964 May 1961

CHOICE is read by 500,000, but popularity had a downside. We hit out at manufacturers using ‘CHOICE’, ‘consumer’ or ‘Best Buy’ recommendations to tout their products.
Mushrooms on the menu took on a new meaning when we assessed fallout from atomic testing at Maralinga. ACA measured Caesium 137 and Strontium 90 in food and milk. “Australians are relatively well-off as regards radioactivity in the diet,” we said and advised against altering eating patterns – missing out on vital nutrients could be more harmful than any fallout.
We served up hock, chablis, burgundy, riesling and claret to a tasting panel, concluding the ‘variety’ gave no indication of what the bottle contains!

1965

Student slide rules slid back and forth 10,000 times in a special machine for our slide rule test. And we didn’t miss a chance to make a point: “In this day and age, the housewife needs a slide rule to calculate whether 3/4oz at 1/6d is a better buy than 9oz at 2/11.”
We lashed out at misleading ads. Ford claimed its Falcon “completes 70,000 miles in 8 3/4 days. No car has ever travelled so far, so fast, as the stock-model Falcons.” In fact, five Falcons covered 14,000 miles each, “just running-in distance,” we said.
“Cinderella-like lotions to erase lines are of great interest to most women,” CHOICE wrote. Magic Secret wrinkle lotion was matched against an egg white. “Both may smooth out wrinkles, but the effect is likely to be slight and unlikely to last long.”
In a food mixer test, we proclaimed: “For thousands of years, housewives have been preparing delectable dishes to tempt their husbands, all without machines. But this is the machine age, and the kitchen has not escaped mechanisation.
“The food mixer is a machine that 10 years ago was a rarity but today is regarded as one of the first buys for newlyweds.”

1966

For the nation’s many home dressmakers, we put pins through their paces: “Such a little thing,” we said. “But then, how useful – and not so very cheap when the prices are examined.”
A member raised this problem: “It’s unfair for a housewife to engage in a battle of wits with a salesman, as the latter has the training to ensure a sale.” His suggestion? A form saying purchases are made by family discussion. “As soon as the housewife sees the caller is a salesman, she hands him a Notice to Hawkers.” At the bottom, it says, in plain Australian, “be on your way, sport.”
“Nothing will grow on you but the flavour,” stated Slenderella, a low-calorie soft drink. “What a temptation for dieters,” we commented. Such a large range of low-calorie soft drinks ...
We called for standardised food purity laws. NSW required 3.2% buttermilk in milk, while Victoria required 3.5%, a difference of nearly 10%. “After all the excitement of the parting of the streamers on the docks, you are on you way …”
So began CHOICE’s pre-jet age report on visiting Britain, where “even the ‘best’ restaurants can serve a completely tasteless meal for a high price”.

1967

A whole issue was devoted to the great Holden vs Ford debate. Our sister association, British Consumers’ Association, put each through their paces. “If you do a lot of long distance driving, the Falcon was the better bet – its comfort and handling were better than those of the Holden.” The story brought us thousands of new members, but existing members were furious because they had heard about the test in the media before they read about it in their own magazine.
We fought our own war over the Agent Zero M Sonic Blaster toy, which resembled a bazooka. Our lab tests showed it emitted 140 decibels. “Repeated firing would be very likely to cause damage to the child’s ear.”
Our 11-page report, “Flammable Night Wear for Children,” lobbied to force manufacturers to label clothing, especially children’s night wear.

1968 October 1961

Tanning got another whipping: “A good suntan is the done thing,” we said. “Skin cancer is an occupational hazard for the sailor, rural worker and others who must expose themselves to the sun all day, year in, year out.”
We changed our minds on the electric toothbrush. “It is not as foolish a gadget as it might first seem to be,” we said, arguing it was handy for “invalids” and children, encouraging them to clean their teeth.
ACA called for a vaccination program to stamp out measles, a disease striking 100,000 children every year. “The money must be found,” we said.
And toddlers were contracting lead poisoning from eating flakes of paint. CHOICE called for legislation to restrict lead in paint to less than one per cent.
The conference of the International Organization of Consumers Unions took place in the US. Privileged ACA delegates visited the White House as the guests of Mrs. Lyndon Johnson.

1969

Compulsory breath testing was introduced. We concluded the DIY Breathmeter was fiddly to use and expensive, so we advised readers against buying one.
Wear-once paper panties were put through their paces (“fashion’s folly?” we asked). Suitable for travellers, but pricewise no substitute for “prettily trimmed” nylon or cotton equivalent was the verdict.
Consumer credit became available and in demand. “It’s shrouded in mystery, with the cost of credit expressed in bewildering terms.”
ACA turned 10, but forwent the champers. “Many think it’s something to celebrate, but we wish we didn’t need to be here at all,” we said soberly.

 
 

 

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