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Marta Tellado on the Campbell Conversations

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Marta Tellado

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Marta Tellado. As the president and CEO of Consumer Reports, she leads the premier non-profit organization dedicated to objective product evaluation and safety and fairness for consumers. She talks about her new book, "Buyer Aware: Harnessing Our Consumer Power For A Safe, Fair and Transparent Workplace."

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today leads Consumer Reports, the premier nonprofit dedicated to objective product evaluation and product safety and fairness for consumers. Marta Tellado, is president and CEO of C.R. and her prior leadership experience includes vice president of the Ford Foundation. She's here with me today because she has a new book out titled, “Buyer Aware: Harnessing Our Consumer Power for a Safe, Fair and Transparent Workplace”. Marta, welcome back to the program. And congratulations on this book.

Marta Tellado: Thank you. Grant, it's a pleasure to be back.

GR: Well, we love having you, and the book looks great. Let me just start with a real basic question. How did you get the idea to write this book now?

MT: You know, last time I was on this show, we talked a little bit about that, and I said, I was thinking about that. And I guess, two things, really. I think it's a watershed moment. And I'll talk a little bit more about that. Why now, why it's so urgent. I think Consumer Reports has this incredible legacy of sort of bearing down in these pivotal moments in our marketplace where there is a lot of change and we're consumers and the balance of power has shifted away from consumers. I think we're at that moment again. And then there were personal reasons that, you know, I'm happy to talk about as well.

GR: Well, that is exactly what I want to ask you about next is because when I was reading through your book, there's a lot of stories about yourself and about your family in here, and they're very compelling. But I did wonder why - what was your decision making in choosing to include those in a book of this nature?

MT: I think I bring a unique life experience. I don't think it's that unique in that, you know, we have such a diverse population and so many of us have… I'll just share that, you know, I came to the US when I was two years old from Havana, Cuba, after a revolution. And after the disappointment of my parents seeing what they hoped was going to be some real change move into a more autocratic state, a lot of heavy surveillance, not a lot of freedom of the press. And so it creates anew this real reverence for the idea that this notion of democracy and what it holds out to you. And then you get here, and as an immigrant, you are navigating a lot because you just by virtue of being this impressionable mind that picks up languages at lightning speed, when you're that young, you become almost a translator. You're making decisions that are way beyond your age about choices, about questions to ask doctors. And you feel very alone in those decisions. And so it was something that sort of shook me a bit, but also inspired a notion that, here we are decades later and we live in a market surveillance environment where we're being tracked and surveilled. We have devices in our home that are recording what we say and do. We haven't necessarily agreed to this marketing surveillance economy that's on the internet, but it's the one we have. Does it really need to be that way? And what is its impact on our democracy?

GR: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. I wanted to ask you a follow up question about your family stories. One of the things that I found really interesting about it was the way that you connected your family's immigration story in the United States to consumer issues and then connect that to democracy. So it was this really neat combination of things. I don't know if you would speak a little bit more about your experience as an immigrant to these consumer issues, it's really neat.

MT: Yes, I'm glad those connections came through. They were very organic for me. It it's sort of something you realize, oh, that maybe there's a story here. These connections carry some weight. And so one of them is really this notion of a democracy being something you have to engage in. That after you leave a country because you know, what you thought was an institution that was hard and fast begins to dissipate. You realize that you have a role to play. It's not just showing up at the polling booth every year or however many times. You have to be engaged that it's a living thing. And so I came away with a tremendous commitment about what that means and that on the other side is as you begin to see some of the cracks in economic opportunity, one of the things that I took away is, I have this firm belief that our democratic freedoms and economic equity can coincide. So in any case, you start to see cracks in the housing market or you're actually shopping for a higher education loan. And is it transparent? Is it fair? What are the terms? Is there some kind of embedded discrimination in some of those tools that you have to use to reach your aspirations in life? Because all of us go to the marketplace to follow a path to either get that home loan, to get that college education, health care and what is it about the way that marketplace is wired that's creating real opportunity for everyone? And to me, that was a constant. You're always looking for that economic opportunity. And so one of the things that I always lean on is this wonderful FDR quote that I use in the book. And I think it's really relevant today is, you know, democratic freedoms are no half and half affair. If you guarantee equal opportunity at the polling booth, you have to secure equal opportunity in the marketplace. And that is really been my mantra. And that has been so woven into the fabric of my life that I have this allegiance to something I deeply believe in as a way of governing. But I also know that its vulnerability lies in the fairness and justice that one meets in the marketplace.

GR: I'm Grant Reeher. You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO. And my guest is Marta Tellado, president of Consumer Reports. And we're discussing her new book titled, “Buyer Aware”. You said just a few minutes ago about how we're being constantly surveilled by these large internet companies and the relationship to democracy and what you were just saying there. When I was reading the book that got me thinking about the social media platforms and how they use their algorithms to drive people to more extreme sources of communication. Because I guess, you know, the thinking is that gets them going and they stay on the site. They, you know, they'll look at the ads and so on. That combined in my mind with the dangers that we're living in right now with political polarization and the dangers that political polarization is posing to the workings of our political system. I was just wondering if you could comment on that a little bit, because I know you're a political scientist by training, so I'm sure you think about it.

MT: I think we're at a turning point. But there's been an awful lot written about the incentives of a social media platform that is really about making sure that you get those clicks and you get those likes and that what they know by intentional testing is that outrage does it. And the more outrageous thing you post, the more people engage, the more they like. It's not reasoned dialog. It's not give and take. It is Balkanizing these sort of extremes. And there's no accountability for that. And we've seen what happens. We've seen that misinformation. Who's really moderating those platforms? There's not enough moderation. There doesn't seem to be, we know self-policing doesn't work. The punishments, there's no accountability. We had Meta, formerly Facebook fined $500 million in Europe for failing to put a privacy control on there for children. They were fined $500 billion but their market capitalization is $377 billion. So that's not accountability, that's the cost of doing business for them. So where is the accountability? We've seen growing lack of trust in our government and in the marketplace. How do you get that trust back? You get it back by having more transparency and accountability.

GR: And one of the things I found interesting in your book was your description of how there's been a sea change in the way that product misinformation is disseminated. I mean, product misinformation is not new. There have been snake oil salesman since the beginning of time, but you write about how there's been a sea change in the way this is done. Tell us a little bit about what's been going on there.

MT: I want to make sure I'm following your question is, is this about the algorithmic bias inherent in some of the ways in which these platforms serve up choices to us?

GR: Yes. And what I was thinking in particular was you talk about for example, if they want to make me think a product is good, they will manufacturer the consumer reviews of this, you know, and that sort of I don't know, for lack of a better word, fake positive evaluations of their product.

MT: Yeah. Well, look, let's be real. The internet is this giant advertising platform. And you have you have very limited ways in… Google. And what we know about Google is that it is absolutely powered by its advertising revenue. And then you get a big platform like Amazon. And what has spurred the growth is this notion of an influencer, celebrity influencers that sort of give a blessing to a product, get on YouTube, do a series. They're getting paid for that. That's not necessarily transparent. And so I think you have to be especially cautious. You start to also see that, we've done a lot of research on this, how positive ratings on Amazon get hijacked. And that's, you know, there are all kinds of workarounds. And then you get native advertising when you're at an actual news site and you see you scroll down and you see a whole host of bizarre stories that say in very tiny letters, “sponsored”. Which, that's just sort of a rabbit hole that you're going to go into and get tracked and fed up a lot more advertising. But it's served up on a news site. And so it's not really transparent. Is that news and commentary or is it advertising? Once you click on to it, then you're right down that rabbit hole.

GR: Yeah. And you've got in your book there very practical things we as consumers can do about this problem. So I think it's important for our listeners to hear some of the things we should be doing.

MT: Well, I think that's right. And I wrote this book to really serve as a playbook, a playbook for consumer power. The issues we're talking about, Grant, are overwhelming. You know, we've been talking about democracy. We talk about lack of trust, fake reviews. How do you as an everyday consumer try to go in there and make sense of all this and make choices? So at every step of the way, I give you some very practical advice about how to do it. One great example is we've been hearing a lot about data privacy and folks getting hacked, or how do you stop the constant advertising tracking and also preserve your personal information and keep it private and your health information. So we've created a whole set of tools. We've got something called the security planner. It's on the site. It doesn't cost anything. I think everybody should just do the step by step process to kind of start to shut those doors down. But then the other thing is in addition to the step by step things each of us collectively can do, the book is really also a clarion call for a movement that begins to make change on a larger scale. We've been fed this model of turning us into commodities and selling our data for profit on these platforms. It doesn't have to be that way. We can actually create an internet where it is safe by design. It is private by design. The burden is not on us to make the right choices all the time. So, since when is our privacy turned into a setting on your device as opposed to a right that should travel with you wherever you go? So for that to happen, I think we need to demand that as a collective.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Marta Tellado. She's the President and CEO of Consumer Reports, and we're discussing her new book titled, “Buyer Aware: Harnessing Our Consumer Power for a Safe, Fair and Transparent Workplace”. I want to come back a little bit later in our conversation in the second half to something you mentioned before when I was asking about product misinformation about some of the biases that are built into some of the data gathering mechanisms that we all have to go through as consumers or if we want a loan. But I want to ask you this other question about financial fairness first, and that is that you talk in your book a lot about student loans for higher education. You talk about your own experience there. And you lay out the changing patterns in those student loans in recent decades. President Biden, as we know, has just forgiven a lot of student loans. And the measure was controversial even among some Democrats. There have been many Democratic economists, for example, who criticized the move. And it's introduced questions about fairness to others who have made, like you did, difficult decisions in paying off those loans. So what's your view on the forgiveness of these loans?

MT: Well, this is such an important area because we were talking earlier about access to opportunity. And for me personally, higher education was my bridge. I would not be sitting here talking to you and running Consumer Reports if it hadn't been for that access to that opportunity. So this is a critical issue and we know about the runaway debt and we know that it impacts some communities more than others and it impacts some of the for profit colleges that have really been scams and that have taken advantage of students. There was no doubt in my mind that whatever President Biden did around this issue, it was going to be controversial, that it was not going to be all inclusive, that there were people who were going to be perceived as winners and losers. What I think is important about it is it finally put it on the table and moved one of the pieces on that board to have a conversation, a national conversation. Do I think everyone's going to agree? No. But do we need to have this conversation? Absolutely. I think it's an important step. I don't think it solves the problem of the runaway cost. That to me, the root cause, we need to wrestle that. And what is driving that? If you talk to a lot of college presidents, they really struggle with some of the ratings out there and how that's driving, you know, sort of perverse incentives about what you put cost in and not. And rather than some of the information that students are hungry for, like financial aid and what percentage of us graduate that are able to do that. And so, I think it's the conversation we have to have. Am I looking for consensus, am I disappointed that there isn't? No, not at all. I think this is important for us to do. And we need to solve it. And we also need to look at those root problems.

GR: I want to come back to the biases that you were referring to earlier in the program. And you write at length in the book about how, in particular, credit rating systems have race bias to them. I wanted to see if you would explain that a little bit and what its impacts are.

MT: Well, I want to take a step back and talk about algorithms. It’s nothing new, right? The algorithms are a decision mechanism where you take a whole lot of data and it's a human tool. You use this data to arrive at decisions to predict risk and cost. But what's the danger there? They have become ubiquitous in calculations about the health care you receive, calculations in the price you pay for your auto insurance. Just every decision that you can possibly think of online and otherwise. So this predictive mechanism, it's only as good as the data that gets poured into it. And so what we discovered was, you know, people often think about their car insurance as well, you know, if I have that really solid driving record, my car insurance rate is going to be lower. Well, what we discovered was that the algorithm that calculates that looks at non driving factors, which is which is not lawful and looks at factors like where you live, what is your zip code. And what that's doing is creating a racial bias. And so you see that adjacent neighborhoods are paying different rates. You see that also in health care. You see it in, there's an example in the book about kidney transplants and the mechanism and the calculations used to determine how far are you away from needing that. There's an inherent race bias in that as well, not based on science. It based on the faulty data that go into it. Nothing new. We as women have often seen a lot of the medical data does not factor in women's health outcomes, but more sort of white male outcomes. So we're seeing if we're not transparent about those algorithms, how do we correct for more fairness in those? How do we try to get we have to improve the data, but we also need more human oversight into this machine learning that we're becoming more and more dependent on. So I think that's something for us to do. But there's a movement and it's called Responsible A.I. and I think there's a lot of promise and there's a lot of awareness that we didn't have three years ago that we're looking at now.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. And my guest is Marta Tellado, president of Consumer Reports. There's a lengthy chapter in your book on consumer product safety specifically. And I think many people would view that as the core of what your organization has been about historically. So how has the landscape of product safety and product safety regulation changed in recent years?

MT: Well, we've done, after 86 years of working on the front lines of safety in the marketplace we've had tremendous success in codifying and introducing laws that, you know, secure your safety as far back as making sure there's a seatbelt in every car which people believe that sort of just happened. It didn't. We had to fight for that. We also had to fight for the backup camera, which, by the way, we only got about five years ago.

GR: I love my backup camera, I love my backup camera! (laughter)

MT: Yes. And so do the children in your neighborhood. That is very important to have. So fast forward and what we have now is we have on a landscape of digital tools and assets that are moving at such breakneck speed and their evolution is so rapid that the protections and the safety mechanisms and rules that we created in the analog world aren't keeping up with that. So by no means have we conquered every product in the analog world that's safe. And there's some harrowing stories about children's products and infant sleepers that took way too long for the Consumer Product Safety Commission to pull off the market. But now fast forward and you've got a whole set of digital harms and consumer harms that we're confronted with. And we don't have the accountability. We don't have the laws in place to secure that safety, to secure your privacy and, you know, to go back to the car example. Okay so we have seatbelts in every car, but we now have enough data on the new technologies that are saving lives: forward collision warning, lane changing, pedestrian spotting. But those are still luxury items in every car. So it's not mandatory. And so what we've had to do is try to create incentives, because in an environment where you're seeing not as much action legislatively as you would like, or bipartisanship on something that seems, why would you make life saving technology a luxury item and not standard? So we're still fighting the fight, but it's a new frontier in terms of how we think about safety in a digital landscape.

GR: So what are the things that again, going back to individual consumers, if they want to try to keep themselves safer, they should be doing? Is there one thing from the playbook that you provide there that you would pull out? I mean, other than subscribing to Consumer Reports and reading about these things.

MT: Well, we have a lot of tools. We have we've got a tool as I mentioned, called the security planner to ensure your privacy online. And sort of shut down trackers and third party sale of your data. But we also have a tool for your credit score. What we know is that your access to financing and the ability to purchase a home or loans or mortgages are also contingent on your credit score. What we learned that there are just a lot of errors in your credit score and you get these credit score apps that are really just a way to soak up more of your data. And they charge you. You actually have access to your credit score. And you need to go in there to make sure you check it to make sure you correct those errors. So we walk you through a way to do that. Again, that is something that's open to everyone for sure. But I think also awareness around recalls on secondary market. And right now, we've just come out of a hurricane season, watch out for those cars that have been flooded. How do you check whether they're a car or the secondary market has really been doctored up and is now being sold and has, you know, come from a flood zone. So there are many, many ways that you can protect yourself. But once again, those are the day to day issues, I think. We try to give you the tools you need.

GR: Got about a minute and a half left. I want to ask you this last question. And this is a more political question for you, saved it for the end. Some large nonprofit advocacy groups that have traditionally been seen as non-partisan are starting to become seen more as partisan, probably a result of the political polarization that we talked about earlier, where everything is seen through this lens. But I think of AARP, for example, as a good example of this. And I do think it's fair to say that they now tend to advocate what our Democratic Party positions and policy on many issues. I'm not suggesting that they're motivated by that, but that's where they end up a lot of the time. You yourself have a partisan political background and your work experience working for a Democratic United States Senator. Is this something you think about with Consumer Reports? Do you think Consumer Reports is now being seen more as a Democratic organization? Because it's, you know, pushing for some of these consumer issues? Or is this something that you guys talk about, think about?

MT: Well, we talk about our independence quite a lot. And I see that as our superpower. People trust us. There is a lack of trust in the marketplace, and a lack of trust in our political institutions right now. So our discipline and I think our success comes from cleaving to that. We have as many red and blue in our membership. We have 6 million members and millions of people coming to our side every day. We experienced it during Covid. We had a tremendous amount of traffic. People were coming to us because they trusted us. Does that mean we're neutral? We are not neutral. Our bias has always been how is this impacting consumers of every shape, color and political background? How safe is this product? How fair is that contract? What does the fine print have to say and what kind of power are you going to have? And I think that is incredibly important. So I would say our independence for 86 years is something we're going to continue to cleave to, and we're proud of it.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. That was Marta Tellado. And again, her new book is titled, “Buyer Aware: Harnessing Our Consumer Power for a Safe, Fair and Transparent Workplace”. I highly recommend the book, it's very readable. And I think as we have previewed here today, it's just chock full of extremely useful advice. So, Marta, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me and thanks for writing the book.

MT: Thank you. Grant, always a pleasure to be on the show.

GR: All right. You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations and the public interest.

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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.