Magazine on a major mission

Thai consumer magazine remains advertisement-free to maintain credibility

Bangkok Post
Saturday, August 22, 2009

By Kultida Samabuddhi

The Brits have Which?, Australians have Choice, and Americans have Consumer Report -- to safeguard them from substandard products and poor services.

In Thailand, the seven-member editorial team of Chalard Sue (Smart Buyer) magazine is pursuing a similar mission to those magazines in developed countries to arm Thai consumers with must-know facts before they buy goods and services.

The 16-year-old magazine, the publication arm of the Foundation for Consumers, is the first and only magazine in the country dedicated to protecting consumer rights. It also claims to be the only advertisement-free magazine in the media business.

"An ad-free policy is crucial for a consumer magazine which needs to be 100% free of business influence to maintain its credibility and neutrality," said the editorial chief of Smart Buyer, Thusanee Nanudorn.

In the initial years, the magazine was distributed to health officials nationwide free of charge, in the hope the officials would share the information in the magazine with local villagers.

The magazine, with a circulation of 6,000, is now available through subscriptions and Nai-in bookstands.

Every month, editorial staff are sent to buy goods and send them for testing at independent laboratories to find out if their quality matches what the manufacturers claim or advertise.

They test them all -- from orange juice, school bags, Bluetooth earphones to toilet paper.

Many findings have become the talk of the town. For example, the testing of orange juice sold in local markets found many brands contained dangerously high levels of sugar, while ready-to-eat cup rice porridge had alarmingly high amounts of sodium.

And when the team bought toilet paper rolls and spread them out, they found the length of the tissue was shorter than stated on the product's label.

More product tests are in the pipeline, such as caffeine levels in popular coffee brands, the safety of Teflon pans, and the quality of detergent powder.

The results will be revealed in upcoming issues of the 80-baht magazine.

Product testing is not cheap, and the Smart Buyer's editorial staff do not do it just for fun.

"Product testing is the highlight of our magazine and we have a long list of products waiting for testing," Ms Thusanee said. "The test results will help consumers decide what they should or should not buy," she said.

Each test costs between 50,000-200,000 baht because they have to buy products of various brands to compare. The lab services also cost a lot of money.

The budget for product testing comes from various sources, including subscription fees, and financial support from the Foundation for Consumers and the Thai Health Promotion Foundation.

Although the magazine has to shoulder huge production costs for each issue, it has no plan to sell advertising space, said Ms Thusanee.

"Smart Buyer would not have survived this long if [we] had to rely on advertisements which would have undermined the magazine's credibility," she said.

Apart from results of product tests and comparisons of price and quality between different brands, the magazine also provides readers with articles from experts in various fields, such as medicine, cosmetics and consumer law.

Although the magazine's content is controversial, putting it at risk of being sued by service providers or product manufacturers, the publication has never faced any lawsuits.

"After the release of each issue, our editorial staff receive only a few calls from manufacturers asking about test results and some complaints about how the findings will affect a product's image," said Ms Thusanee.

"No one sues us because our information is reliable and based on scientific experiments," she said. "The manufacturers may fear that lawsuits will further hurt product sales."

The 72-page publication currently has slightly more than 3,000 subscribers which is still lower than expected.

Despite the lower-than-expected reader numbers, the spirit of the editorial team remains high.

"We believe our readership will grow," she said. "The growing number of readers will not only salvage the magazine, but also strengthen Thai consumers." Ms Thusanee conceded that working as a consumer watchdog had made her life more complicated because knowing too much about the dangers or poor quality of goods and services had left her with a limited choice.

"Our editorial staff have made a number of wrong decisions or consumed food products that are hazardous to their health or of low nutritional value. We aren't such smart buyers all the time.

"However, this is more about the right to know. You can make a wrong decision, but you have to make sure the decision is based on facts and well-rounded information about products and services," she said.