If you had been watching WCBS-TV news in New York over the last seven years you would have seen a young, curly-haired man with a shy manner and an occasional stammer change from an odd choice for a broadcaster into a battling tiger of a consumer advocate. Winner of seven Emmy awards, target of lawsuits by large corporations (you're nobody till somebody sues you), John Stossel has taken consumer protection away from studio reporters and made it a street beat. He exposed price-fixing in the milk industry, the racket of apartment-referral bureaus, the identical nature of all aspirin, the futility of weight-reduction gimmicks. He has kicked tires, pinched fruit, felt the goods, asked probing questions, had doors slammed in his face and been threatened with violence.
Now he has distilled his TV coverage into what could be useful coast to coast and decanted it into this book, "Shopping Smart." It reads as though he wrote every word of it himself -- friendly, intelligent, spirited and a little ungrammatical. In fact, among the few things I can find wrong with it are the claims made in the subtitle and on a front cover banner: "The only consumer guide you'll ever need," and "How to buy EVERYTHING you want at a price you can afford to pay." If Stossel were doing a TV report on his book jacket he'd have to call those claims false advertising.
Stossel should have exercised the same control over his publisher's jacket copy that he has over his own words, and eliminated the misleading promises. Example: from the back cover, "Diet pills that do work." From the book, "There is no solid proof that either of the drugs will help you lose weight. They seem to help some people but not others. In addition, although the FDA review panel called both drugs 'safe and effective,' there are safety questions about phenylpropanolamine." The only other weight-loss drugs that Stossel discusses are amphetamines, about which he correctly states, "They are addictive, and people occasionally kill themselves misusing them," and benzocaine, about which he writes, "You suck on the candy and the benzocaine deadens your taste buds. Food doesn't taste as good, and supposedly, you eat less." Has the cover escalated that "supposedly" into "do work"? If so, that is a bad show.
I went into the book a confirmed Stossel fan (WCBS will be much the poorer when Stossel moves over to ABC at a reported half-million a year) and, while I'm still a fan, I am not convinced that I should abandon my subscription to "Consumer Reports" or toss away the other consumer guides on my shelves. For although what Stossel does he does very well, he doesn't do it all. I still don't know how to get the best buy on the dishwasher sink unit I need or where to find blank videotape at the lowest price. However, if I should every buy a car I would take "Shopping Smart" with me, because it has just about the most useful information I've seen anywhere on getting the best car deal, including a table of "twins," those cars which are identical models with different names and cosmetic additions. That chapter alone can save you more than 20 times the cost of the book.
And if most of the rest of the information in the book is brisk and once-over-lightly, it may well be enough for not-too-serious consumers.
John Dorfman's credentials are impressive. A former editor of "Consumer Reports," and now a consultant there, he is the author of a number of books on consumerism, among them "Consumer Survival Kit" and "A Consumer's Arsenal." What he does in this tactics manual is tell you where to go with specific complaints: which specific city, county, state, federal or business agencies can handle them for you and how to go about making those comlaints successfully. Since the book's format is that of a miniencyclopedia with alphabetical listings of areas of complaint and geographical listings of agencies, it's less conductive to browsing than to action.
Yet none of this is new. There are a number of books on the market that include the same information. Macmillan prints two excellent guides and updates them: "Consumer Protection Guide" and "Consumer Complaint Guide." Everest House has "Help: The Indispensable Almanac of Consumer Information" on the market, a thick paperback at $8.95 that has more information in it than the Dorfman and the Stossel books put together.