Warning! Warning labels can be dangerous to your health

January 16, 2014
Warning! Warning labels can be dangerous to your health

Many products, like cigarettes and medications, are stamped with warning labels alerting consumers to their risks. Common sense suggests these warnings will encourage safer choices.

But now Dr. Yael Steinhart of Tel Aviv University's Recanati Business School, along with Prof. Ziv Carmon of INSEAD in Singapore and Prof. Yaacov Trope of New York University, has shown that can actually have the opposite effect. When there is a time lag between reading a warning and then buying, consuming, or evaluating the associated products, the warnings may encourage trust in the manufacturers of potentially dangerous products, making them less threatening. Published in Psychological Science, the study findings could help improve the efficacy of warning labels.

"We showed that warnings may immediately increase concern and decrease consumption," said Dr. Steinhart. "But over time, they paradoxically promote trust in a product and consequently lead to more positive product evaluation and more actual purchases." The findings have important implications for regulators and managers in fields including consumer products, healthcare, and finance.

The best laid plans

The study is based on an idea called "the construal-level theory" (CLT), developed by Prof. Trope and Prof. Nira Liberman of TAU's School of Psychological Sciences. When thinking about objects over a period of time, people tend to construe them abstractly, emphasizing what they describe as "high-level features" and suppressing "low-level features." The high-level feature of warning labels is that they build trust in consumers by creating the impression that all the relevant information about the products is being presented. The low-level feature of warning labels is that they make consumers more aware of the products' negative side effects.

The CLT holds that over long periods of time, consumers deemphasize side effects and emphasize the feeling of trust communicated by warnings over time. Ironically, this may increase the purchase, consumption, and assessment of the associated products.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

To test this prediction, the researchers ran a series of experiments. In one experiment, they showed smokers one of two ads for an unfamiliar brand of : either with or without a health warning. When smokers were told the cigarettes would arrive the next day, the warning worked – decreasing the number of cigarettes purchased by an average of 75 percent compared to a group that was not shown the warning. But when smokers were told the cigarettes would arrive in three months, the warning backfired – the number of cigarettes purchased increased by an average of 493 percent compared to a group that was not shown the warning.

In another experiment, the researchers showed women ads for an , again either with or without a . When women were given the chance to order the sweetener right away, the warning worked – decreasing the packages of sweetener ordered by an average of 94 percent compared to a group that was not shown the warning. But when women were given the chance to order the sweetener just two weeks later, purchases increased by 265 percent compared to a group that was not shown the warning.

Consumer entities that want to minimize the deterrent effects of warnings would be better off building in a delay of some sort than burying the warnings in fine print, the researchers say. But those who genuinely want to inform customers of risks should ensure warnings are seen, or repeated, shortly before products are bought or consumed.

Explore further: Warning of potential side effects of a product can increase its sales

Related Stories

Warning of potential side effects of a product can increase its sales

September 24, 2013
Drug ads often warn of serious side effects, from nausea and bleeding to blindness, even death. New research suggests that, rather than scaring consumers away, these warnings can improve consumers' opinions and increase product ...

FDA seeks faster warning updates for generic drugs

November 8, 2013
The Food and Drug Administration is seeking a rule change to allow generic drugmakers to quickly update their warning labels with new safety information for doctors and patients.

Graphic warning labels on cigarette packs could lead to 8.6 million fewer smokers in US‏‏‏

November 25, 2013
A research paper published in the scientific journal Tobacco Control, "Cigarette graphic warning labels and smoking prevalence in Canada: a critical examination and reformulation of the FDA regulatory impact analysis", shows ...

Graphic warning labels reduce demand for cigarettes

August 8, 2011
Will graphic cigarette package warning labels significantly reduce demand? A new study suggests it will.

Can new FDA graphic warning labels for tobacco pass a first amendment legal challenge?

June 18, 2013
When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) imposes new graphic warning labels for tobacco products, they can survive a First Amendment challenge if they depict health consequences and their effectiveness is supported ...

Study: Graphic warnings on cigarettes effective across demographic groups

January 14, 2013
Quitting smoking is a common New Year's resolution for Americans each year, but research has repeatedly shown it is not an easy task. Some groups, such as racial/ethnic minorities, have an even harder time quitting. New research ...

Recommended for you

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

Precision medicine opens the door to scientific wellness preventive approaches to suicide

August 15, 2017
Researchers have developed a more precise way of diagnosing suicide risk, by developing blood tests that work in everybody, as well as more personalized blood tests for different subtypes of suicidality that they have newly ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.