Warning Labels: Counterproductive?

warning labelsHealth advocates have pushed for more aggressive warning labels for decade, in an effort to inform consumers of the risks associated with certain items, such as cigarettes and medicines.[1] However, recent research has found that, in fact, these warning labels may actually be counterproductive.1

A study by Yael Steinhart, Ph.D. of Tel Aviv University, along with Dr. Ziv Carmon of INSTEAD in Singapore and Dr. Yaacov Trope of New York University found that warning labels may actually encourage more trust in the manufacturers of these potentially dangerous product, making them seem less threatening.1 This research may help improve the effectiveness of future warning labels.1

According to Steinhart, “We showed that warnings may immediately increase concern and decrease consumption, but over time, they paradoxically promote trust in a product and consequently lead to more positive product evaluation and more actual purchases.”1

Steinhart and colleagues’ study was based on a theory called the construal-level theory (CLT), and their theory considered that when thinking about objects over a period of time, people actually tend to construe them abstractly, which emphasizes what they describe as high-level features and suppresses the low-level features.1 The high-level feature of a warning label is that they build trust in consumers.1 It creates the impression that all of the relevant information regarding the product is being presented, which is untrue.1 On the other hand, the low-level feature of a warning label is that it makes consumers more aware of the product’s negative side effects.1

The CLT supports that over time, consumers de-emphasize side effects and emphasize the feeling of trust communicated by the warning labels.1 This, in turn, increases the purchase, consumption, and assessment of the products.1

In order to test this theory, Steinhart and colleagues ran a series of experiments.1 In one experiment, the researchers showed smokers one of two ads for an unfamiliar brand of cigarettes, either with or without a health warning.1 When the smokers were told the cigarettes would arrive the next day, the warning worked, and decreased the number of cigarettes purchased by an average of 75 percent compared to a group that was not shown the warning.1

However, when smokers were told the cigarettes would arrive in three months, the warning label was counterproductive, and the number of cigarettes purchased increased by 493 percent, when compared to the group that was not shown the warning.1

Another experiment showed women ads for an artificial sweetener, either with or without a health warning.1 When women were given the chance to order the sweetener right away, the warning label had succeeded in decreasing the packages of sweetener ordered by an average of 94 percent.1 However, when the women were given the chance to order the sweetener two weeks later, purchases increased by 265 percent.1

Therefore, Steinhart and colleagues suggest that companies who wish to genuinely inform customers of risks should ensure that warning labels are seen and repeated shortly before products are bought or consumed.1

[1] Nauert, R. (2014). Are Warning Labels Counterproductive?. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 20, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/01/20/are-warning-labels-counterproductive/64768.html

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