After seeing a second report in “Consumer Reports” magazine slam the company cash cow, the Ionic Breeze Quadra air purifier, Sharper Image decided to fight back. Last month it filed a suit in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California against Consumers Union, the parent organization of the nonprofit magazine, for product disparagement, unfair competition, negligence, and “tortuous interference with a prospective economic advantage.”
The Sharper Image suit cites what it claims are numerous flaws in an article published in the October 2003 issue of “Consumer Reports.” “We were sandbagged again,” says Sharper Image attorney Bob Wallach.
The complaint faults “Consumer Reports” for comparing Sharper Image’s Ionic Breeze Quadra, which doesn’t run on a fan mechanism, to air purifiers manufactured by Friedrich and Whirlpool that do. Whereas fan-powered air purifiers can work for a limited time to clean up the air in a given room, Sharper Image’s product is designed to be left running all day. As a result, Sharper Image contends that “Consumer Reports” didn’t make a fair comparison. In its article, “Air Cleaners: Behind the Hype,” the magazine gave Sharper Image’s product a “poor” rating.
In addition to charging that the magazine’s findings are “false and misleading,” Sharper Image believes that they caused monetary damages “in the form of harm to reputation and goodwill inflicted on both the company, and the Ionic Breeze product line.” The suit is hardly a get-rich-quick scheme for Sharper Image, however. “If we get a judgment against Consumers Union for $1, it’ll be an enormous message,” Wallach says. “We want Consumers to acknowledge that we both agree to disagree. We understand that its test won’t show results from our air purifier in the first 30-40 minutes, and we’d just like them to print—with equal notoriety in their magazine—that The Sharper Image contends it’s not amenable to testing by Consumers’ procedures.” The suit calls for “appropriate retractions and corrective statements with respect to its false statements about the Quadra.”
Consumers Union would comment only through a prepared statement: “The complaint is lacking in legal and factual merit. We stand by our testing and our story as published. Our test procedures, which have been reviewed by two independent experts, are valid. The references to the Ionic Breeze Quadra in the October 2003 issue of “Consumer Reports” are truthful, fair and accurate.”