March 9, 2009 -- Who can you trust these days? With political scandals and financial scams abounding, who really has your back? Is there anyone you can believe in anymore?
Good Housekeeping editor in chief Rosemary Ellis says you can believe in the Good Housekeeping Seal.
"It's become the de facto phrase that means best of breed," said Ellis. "You can trust us, it's the best, it's the top of the heap, and when people see the seal on a product, they know they can trust it."
Good Housekeeping is a 124-year-old magazine filled with recipes and cleaning tips. But there is more. Much more. On the 29th floor of a posh New York skyscraper, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute tests everything.
This year the magazine is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Good Housekeeping Seal, and in this time of newspaper closings and magazines folding, Good Housekeeping is actually picking up subscriptions.
"It's obviously more relevant than ever," Ellis said. "Times are so tough, so you want to make sure that no matter what you're spending your money on, whether it's mascara or a microwave, that you're getting real value for your money. And no matter what price point it's at, that whatever you're investing in, it's going to do what it says it's going to."
In fact, the Good Housekeeping Seal offers a limited warranty: If the product doesn't perform as promised within the first two years, the magazine will refund your money. Not the company, the magazine. Only products that survive the testing gauntlet of the magazine's research institute win the seal.
"Some tests are very quick and easy, and some tests take months," said Miriam Arond, the director of the institute. "It really does depend. Our goal is to evaluate a product so that we're going to answer any question you might have as somebody who is about to buy that product. We want to make sure we have covered the territory and we know that it will perform as a consumer wants."
Inside the Good Housekeeping Research Institute
Arond leads a team of "super testers," including Kathleen Huddy, who is the textiles director.
"When you're dragging your luggage, your kid's dragging their backpack on the sidewalk, you want to know how that fabric is going to hold up," she said.
She said they perform tests that give consumers "a really good idea of the durability of the fabric."
With her machines, she beats the heck out of fabric to see how it will wear, simulating the effect of several years of wear and tear on furniture upholstery, for example.
"They go through anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 rubs, depending on the fabric type," she said. "It usually takes about two days."
Boots that claim to be waterproof are rained on. One that was tested while "Nightline" was there emerged soaked through.
"Your foot would be wet," Huddy said. "This boot says waterproof, so you would be unhappy. So that's why we're here. To make sure manufacturers are really telling the truth."
"We keep everyone dry and the manufacturers on their toes," she said.
That's the point at Good Housekeeping -- always has been -- to hold products accountable. It was testing food safety before there was an Food and Drug Administration. It pulled cigarette ads a dozen years before the first surgeon general's report. And it blew the whistle on Pirate's Booty several years ago when the company claimed that it had 2.5 grams of fat per serving, when there were really more than 8 grams. The company that makes Pirate's Booty, Robert's American Gourmet, said the mistake was due to a manufacturing error, and the label was corrected.
When asked whether manufacturers are afraid of the magazine, Ellis said, "I hope so, in a healthy fearful kind of way."
"I want manufacturers to respect us and understand that if they submit their product for scrutiny that it definitely is going to be put through the wringers here, that's our job," she said. "That's what we should do."
Testing Laundry Detergent, Vacuums and More
"Getting messy is definitely easier than cleaning up," said Carolyn Forte, the director of the home appliances and cleaning products department. "That takes us no time. We put soils onto things, we really bake it on, let it sit on, dry it on, so we know that we're really giving the products a challenge."
By the way, the hardest thing to get out? Mustard.
And when Forte tests vacuums, there's a precise recipe of dirt, a precise way of messing up the sample and a very precise machine to run the vacuums.
"This way we know for every test it was done at the same speed, same rate, same number of passes, there is no room for human error," she said.
You name the product, Good Housekeeping tests it. From food labeling to infra-red wrinkle removers.
"You're supposed to move it around your face for 18 minutes every day for 30 days," said Birnal Aral, the director of the health and beauty lab. Testers complained that it was too time-consuming.
The person with the coolest job? Todd Kent, the senior test engineer, and the only male tester we met. The consumer electronics he tests may look like boy toys, but he said he's testing ease of use for everyone.
"We're really looking at how easy they are to use, and how they're going to make your life faster, simpler or just save your time," he said. "And that's what our reader is looking for."
Testing the Toys
Kent showed us the test for how computers work in a heat chamber with 90-degree humidity. And then the ultimate tester's dream: Kent gets to break stuff.
"So here we have some toys," he said. "And the main part about this test is that we drop it several times at several different orientations. After it drops, the main thing that we are looking for is not to see if it works, or if it broke, but if it broke into small pieces that could be a choking hazard for a small child."
Some things survive. Others, not so much.
It may seem a little like a game, but it's not for Good Housekeeping or its 25 million readers.