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An alternative history of Which?*

60 years of Which?

The first issue of Which? was published 60 years ago this month. Here, our guest, community member Ian, reimagines how the seed was first sown…

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who lived with his parents in a tumbledown (not to say ramshackle) house. The little boy was generally happy, had some nice friends and looked forward especially to two events in the year: his birthday and Christmas Day.

However, he found that the toys he was given as presents sometimes broke rather too quickly. He also noticed that the accumulator powering the suitcase wireless often expired at the start of the weekend, when it was too late to replace it as the shop was shut. This made him sad.

Fairy tale

One night, in the run-up to Christmas, a fairy appeared at the end of his bed and twinkled. The little boy sat up sharply, and said: ‘Hello. Who are you?’

The fairy grimaced, muttered something about current educational standards slipping, and then seemed to compose herself. ‘I am your Christmas fairy and I am here because you’ve been good – mostly – and I can grant you one wish,’ she told him. ‘Oh, and no wishing for more wishes. Read the Ts and Cs, kid.’

The little boy stared for a moment, then realised this was likely to be a one-off chance and he’d better not screw it up. ‘Er…’ he began, hesitantly.

‘C’mon, kid,’ rasped the fairy, in a passable impression of James Cagney (well, this was a while ago…). ‘I ain’t got all day.’

The little boy swallowed hard, then said, carefully: ‘I want a way to know which presents won’t break too quickly.’

The fairy frowned, thought for a moment and said: ‘Hmmm. Not the usual request. What’s your name, kid?’

‘Michael,’ answered the little boy, nervously.

‘OK, Michael,’ said the fairy, spitting. ‘I’ll grant you your wish, but you’ll have to wait a while.’

‘How long?,’ asked Michael.

‘Until you’re 42,’ replied the fairy, mysteriously, and twinkled off.

A brief history…

Which? entered the world in October 1957.

Michael Young (then aged 42) had suggested to Harold Wilson that the Labour Party should include a Consumer Advisory Service as part of its manifesto in the early 1950s.

However, it was Americans, Ray and Dorothy Goodman, who’d mocked up a magazine separating good products from bad.

The couple were to return to the States before they could publish the magazine, but left a dummy copy of their proposal with Michael.

A few months later, the first quarterly copy of Which? was printed in a converted garage in Bethnal Green, east London.

This month, Which? is celebrating its 60th birthday. It may not be perfect, but it remains a force for good in consumer terms, it continues to lobby relentlessly on consumer issues, and you can still find out how many sheets there are in a loo roll.

Happy Birthday, Which?!

*This is a creative story about the birth of Which?, as penned by community member, Ian.


I have been a supporter for decades and it is good to look back to the last century and see how the consumer landscape was changed. There was a real need for reliable information and a force to stamp out dodgy dealing and the Consumers’ Association Ltd was the charity for the job [1987].

The ethos of the founding members and subscribers was strong but seems to have been subdued in the last decade as Which? has become involved or entangled in commercial operations that seem to prevent it being the force it was.

Many company histories omit matters of interest and I was curious to see what the link to the Real history of Which? revealed – a claim of :
” 2004 Peter Vicary-Smith joined as chief executive – He led significant investments in our product testing and digital products – boosting our membership from 807,000 to 1,494,000 by 2014.”

I think there is a significant mistake here as the number of members was/is below 1m at around 700,00. The problem is that if I have 2 subscriptions, and some people subscribe to multiple Which? products, then these members are double/treble counted.

I have mentioned this claim several times over the past three years to both staff and Trustees and it is annoying that it continues to be trotted out. If I am wrong please do say.

The legal action against JJB Sports is not mentioned nor the failed magazine launch in India and other items which is a shame if one believes history should be accurate and not puffery.

Ian wrote: “‘I am your Christmas fairy and I am here because you’ve been good – mostly – and I can grant you one wish,’ she told him. ‘Oh, and no wishing for more wishes. Read the Ts and Cs, kid.’”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Thank you Ian. A good in depth contribution with humour and your usual erudite insight. ` Naturally`, Which has evolved from a product tester to a magazine reflecting the social and political complexities of our current world. The excitement of picking up a magazine to find out what has been tested and what to buy, has been replaced by a sophistication that makes Which more like a Sunday newspaper with articles to ponder over, and, perhaps, flick through the testing summaries at the end, knowing that a visit on line is needed for further research. Which does concentrate on consumer issues and injustices and it sees itself as a beacon to right these and chase those who are responsible for their misdeeds. Many of these issues have multi strands and often advice given is appropriate to some, and not others or is limited in its scope. The back office does its best to add to this if one wishes to pay for this advice. The result is a magazine that is always interesting to pick up and read, but pages of large pictures and little print waste space and, conversely, pages of close print with boxes to add information, take some work to follow the passage of the main message through. Which can’t win either way!! I rarely find the complete answer in what has been written and, of course, what is of interest to me might not interest other readers and vice-versa. Correlation between what is bothering the public and what Which wants to discuss is sometimes not easy to see. On balance the magazine is worth its subscription, since it is just one part of the empire and I do believe that Which is on our side for most of the time.
It is difficult to see how Which can evolve from where it is. Consumer issues will continue to be generated and bad practice will always need exposure. The product testing function needs to be kept current and perhaps more anticipation of market trends and new products, could help. Customer reviews can differ from the Which recommendation and Which needs to wonder why this is, when it happens. Nevertheless, product testing is just that and needs to continue. So where new can Which go to evolve? Politics? I don`t think so. Increase its power base and clout? Could be. Widen its membership? Most definitely.

Vynor mentions the large pictures in Which? magazine. Sometimes this annoys me too, but I assume that this is what most people would expect in a magazine. I would love to see more depth in articles, but maybe this could be provided online.

Thanks for a thought proving contribution, Ian. I agree that we need Which? to continue to keep an eye on what businesses get up to, and maybe do more to be positive about good practice. I very much agree on the importance of social media to the future of Which? Through Convo, Patrick S and colleagues have tried to interest us, without much success.

I don’t regret the passing of in-house testing of products because the increasing number and complexity of products means that this is the only sensible approach – in my view. Sadly we are not given much information, but I believe that Which? is making use of a variety of test labs in the UK and other countries, from the limited clues we are provided with.

I wonder what the next ten years will bring.

I think we all believe that a potent consumer body is needed and Which? needs to get that aspect back. As many of you are aware I am a subscriber to several consumer bodies and I like to see how they do things and nick the good ideas and consider if they offer ways to improve on the current Which?.

For the moment I will look at Choice though there are three others with good points to consider. None are as commercial as Which?

Choice Australia has a total budget is Aus $ 18m and they run their own testing lab which allows subscribers [160k] to visit. From their recommended badge system [Best Buy] they rec’d just over $600K in 2016. One imagines it is much greater with Which? thought this figure has never been advised in the Accounts since it started in 2007.

1. Because they have their own laboratories they are substantial more able to knock-up quick tests -think Whirlpool- and make sense of matters.
2. Where members write to comment on reviews and add their own experience these are curated and even rejected if they are not relevant. None of this stupid ” it arrived late one star” rubbish.
3. The Shonky awards get great publicity and show which side of the fence Choice sits and in the last fornight has shown the power of the Shonky’s.

Shonky’s – how the media report them. And less than fortnight from a Shonky Award and Coles agreeing a name change!!!

Clearly many have the success of a consumers association at heart, and the wish to foster it. I hope Which? will embrace this more in the future. Maybe the AGM will see whether this is going to happen.

I, too, miss the in- house testing, because I think it leads to a loss of in-house knowledge when they rely on third parties. Part of my working life was looking after research and testing laboratories and I know the value of what is learned “hands on” that may not necessarily figure in the subsequent reports. Not that anything is being hidden, but reports present the main features, but not the other bits of information that gradually accumulate to form knowedge. This is particularly important when the come to present information to us, and talk to outside bodies – BSI for example. They need the first-hand experience that testing provides. I agree some testing needs specialist staff and expensive facilities, but not all.

I have many times asked Which? for better engagement with its Membership, including tapping into their individual expertises. I’d also like to see a Members Committee formed to put forward Members views on governance, policy and topics. As an example, I see some campaigns and surveys as defective and not necessarily reflecting a majority view; I say not necessarily, because we don’t know and I think when Which? does lobby government on some issues it needs to be sure it has Membership support. Of course, if it is simply a commercial organisation, and being a “Member” is just a ruse, then it will do what it likes.

Thinking about the future, I wondered if Which? offers an electronic subscription and whether this might replace the printed version in future.

Having had a quick look at the Which? website I cannot immediately find the cost of subscribing to the printed magazines, never mind whether electronic versions are available.

What would all those without access to the internet then do?
I still prefer reading paper copies of useful documents. Perhaps I’m in a minority.

It was merely speculating. I am interested in the current prices of the magazines and whether electronic versions are available.

I have never been successful at finding the costs of belonging to Which?, easily on their website. The nearest I have got today is
-go the the Which? Directory (very bottom of a web page)
– Select “About us – what we do and how we work”
or top of a Web page/More from Which?/
– “Our products and services”
– “Magazines and Apps”
– “Sign up online”
The Which? (main magazine) link on my computer actually shows “Computing” @£21.75/qtr.
Computing shows the same.
Money shows £10.75 / month
Travel and Gardening just show a phone number – 01992 822800.

I feel I have missed something very obvious, and all the costs of being a member will be listed in one place. Where is it?

We discussed this before but it was a long time ago and I don’t remember the outcome.

If I see products without prices in a shop window then I assume that they are expensive. 🙂

@patrick, are all the various subscriptions listed in one place?

I’ve had a look on our website for a list of our subscriptions and services and you can find them here:

At the moment the prices for the memberships aren’t showing, this is something that has been highlighted to the relevant teams, so hopefully this can be updated.

In regards to going online only, Which? doesn’t have any plans to go completely online, a lot of our members are happy receiving the magazine and as Malcolm points out, not everybody has access to online. We still believe that print and online can work well together.

@awhittle, thanks Alex. I’m glad to hear there are no plans to drop paper magazines. Thanks for bringing the subscription issue to the team’s attention; it would be useful if all offerings were easy to find in one place, with their prices.

Thanks Alex. I wonder if there are any plans to make the Which? magazine available as a ‘digital -only subscription’.

A couple of magazines that I take do offer this option, which is cheaper because it saves the cost of printing and postage. A lower subscription might be attractive to younger people, many of whom will be accustomed to reading online.

Offering lower prices to online customers – thus being subsidised by the rest? 🙂 If many of us switched (those who are able) to online only, Which?’s revenue would reduce unless there was a real increase in customers. I oin’t know whether many more young people will be attracted to Which? unless it satisfies their needs. I would think these would be more product and services based, rather than social campaigning.

I have not suggested cross-subsidy. Many magazines do offer electronic subscriptions and it would be good to see far more young people becoming aware of consumer issues.

We do offer a digital pack (online only) – it’s £7.95 per month, which is the same as the Which? magazine subscription. You can still access the magazine under ‘My Account’ when you log in, it just means you don’t receive a magazine through the post, particularly useful for people who browse online or travel a lot. All other services remain the same.

@awhittle, thanks Alex.

Thanks very much, Alex. I’m not planning to change but it’s good to see that Which? makes options available.

Which? has certainly done many experiments over the years. I recently discovered a batch of old Which? Tech podcasts on my phone.

“When your trial month ends your membership will automatically continue at £10.75 per month.” Seems to suggest that the magazine with Internet access is a tad more.

That’s what I saw when I clicked on the offer to try Which? magazine for a month. I think that includes internet access, on the basis that other magazines I subscribe to give this as a bonus.

I have just downloaded the Which? Reviews app to check if prices are reasonable when I’m shopping.

Morning Patrick and Wavechange, if you’re paying £10.75 and receiving the Which? magazine then you’ll also have access to our legal consumer advice. This is the main trial offer on the website, but alternative trials are available.

Wow! I didn’t know we used to do a podcast, that seems a bit different, but interesting. I always liked the idea of audio books but I’m not sure we’d be able to produce those

Good morning. The Which? Tech podcasts were discontinued in 2014, but had been going for at least five years. Only a few of the recent ones on my phone still play but I’ve been listening to someone called Patrick Steen discussing the demise of Windows XP. At one time I downloaded the podcasts and listened to them on long car journeys. That seems ages ago.