One of my favourite regular jobs is to welcome CHOICE members to our building when they come to tour our testing labs. For me, this is a chance to meet some of the people who pay our wages. For members, it's a chance to ask the questions they have always wanted to ask.
The discussion tends to roam far and wide, but there's one question that always comes up: "Does CHOICE have a large legal department?"
It's a fair question. We take on some pretty big targets. Just looking at the Shonky Award winners from the past few years, they have included major banks, international electronics manufacturers and, in 2011, the entire Australian insurance industry. In the normal course of our work, we encounter plenty of threats of legal action – some explicit, others thinly veiled.
Earlier this year, a legal firm acting for Advanced Hair Studio contacted us demanding that we remove comments about Advanced Hair from a story on hair loss treatment. They took issue with the way we reported on action by British advertising regulators about misleading ads featuring Shane Warne.
While we updated the story, there was no way we were going to leave consumers in the dark about Advanced Hair – so not only can you still read our updated look at hair loss treatments, we've also conducted a shadow shop to see what you'll really get at hair loss clinics. (Our tip: you should be highly sceptical about any product that claims to reverse hair loss!)
Earlier this year, Pace Farms sent the lawyers in after we named them as one of the worst offenders for shonky "free range" egg claims. Once again, we stuck to our guns.
Other businesses resort to a PR assault – like in June, when the big retailers sent out former David Jones CEO Mark McInnes to attack us over our campaign against changes to the GST on overseas online purchases. The strength of this response told us that we must have been doing something right.
We are, of course, meticulous with our research and fact checking. We don't want to unfairly damage the reputation of any business – and, more importantly, we want to make sure that we're giving accurate advice to consumers. If somebody finds an error in our work, we're happy to correct it.
But the reality is that most of the heavy-handed letters we receive – be they from lawyers or PR hacks – are simply trying to scare us into silence. They usually achieve the opposite effect, because if anything, they tell us that we're onto something – that we have found the weak point in a business's product or marketing claims.
And if one of these matters turns into a public brawl, all the better. I'd be happy to stake the reputation of CHOICE against Advanced Hair any day.
Alan Kirkland, CEO