Consumers sucked into media myth vortex, again

By Jack Hunter

The press has been at it again. Indignant that Brussels might try to improve things in people's homes, some sections of the media went into overdrive in their condemnation of vacuum cleaner standards that came into force today to push bad models off the market and reward the good. 

Britain again led the way, with reporters either misunderstanding, sidelining or chosing to ignore altogether the fact that there is no direct correlation between power and performance in order to run with sensationalist stories. But if it's powerful it's better, right? 'No, that's where design comes in, stupid' was more or less the words of the European Commission press spokeswoman during a BBC Radio 4 interview (minute 08:30) this lunchtime, noting in a recent blog that manufacturers had engaged in an arms race of sorts in recent years, vying with each other to create the most powerful machine to wow shoppers, but paying less attention to end performance. The scene was set for a message of 'go out and buy, buy (panic!), buy before the shops run dry' of such beasts.

The UK's Daily Mail needed little encouragement and let rip with the headline 'We're just going to have to suck it up'. The Telegraph again forgot that its own staff ran an experiment back in 2010 proving that the best vacuums were older, low wattage models, rather than glitzy mega-power new versions that create more noise and heat than performance. This amnesia allowed it to merrily run with the headline 'EU rules against powerful vacuum cleaners' and before long it's resident Brussels bulldog Bruno Waterfield widened the attack to report with certainty that many other everyday goods would meet the same fate, even though regulations are years away, currently in the hands of outside consultants and subject to endless debate. Even the left-leaning Guardian put on a logic-blindfold to allow Fay Schopen to write nostalgically about noisy, over-powered vacuums (?). Thankfully environment editor John Vidal stepped in a couple of days later to set the facts straight.

The apparent run on UK shops was probably sparked by a twin-headed monster of a press statement by UK consumer organisation Which? This led with a panicky, editor-grabbing cry to 'buy while you still can', followed with a much more sensible but highly ignorable caveat that power doesn't equal performance. Perhaps the Which? press people forgot that their policy experts consider EU energy efficiency laws as "critically important". With this in mind, perhaps it's time for energy efficiency to get a few extra points when it comes to awarding 'best buys'. Thankfully its French (UFC QC) and German (Swiftung Warentest) counterparts kept their sights on long-term reputation over short-term headlines. The Germans found that almost all the best cleaners were low powered ones, with only 1 out of 20 or so bucking that very clear finding. Umbrella organisations for consumers at European level, BEUC and ANEC, have both come out in strong support of the new rules, as has the Committee on Climate Change.

No surprise then that media reports in these countries was much closer to the mark. Coverage in France was a mixed hoover bag, with UFC QC quoted in this national TV spot. The Berliner Zeitung ran with a story typical of the German press, though some elements couldn't resist a poke at the EU.

It may have helped that Bosch came out earlier in the year in support of the new rules, perhaps because, as a European firm that makes quality products, it doesn't have much to fear and a lot to gain from rules that effectively promote quality products. Dyson's legal gripe against the rules is less to do with the standards eliminating his models, since all make the grade, and presumably more to do with the ranking they will get under the new energy label. The firm reported a 78% growth in sales since it launched its press and legal offensive against the EU. Sir James is quoted as saying "It is a myth that bigger is better".

Picture credit: Chandler Hummell


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