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When Does "Healthy" Mean Healthy? Misleading Advertising and Consumer MisPerceptions

featured / behavioral research / health research / advertising research

Walking through the grocery store, you're bound to come across dozens of claims displayed in large bright letters on product packaging: "Natural," "Low-Fat," "Low-Sodium." These words are often harmless—a fat-free yogurt describing itself, or a jar of peanut butter promoting its ingredients.

But product packaging labels can also be misleading. Occasionally, a product will have a claim that is outright incorrect or inaccurate. More frequently, though, misleading product labeling uses language that implies a benefit of the product that does not exist or an exclusive feature that is actually shared by other brands. For instance, a food item billed as having "No Trans Fat!" might cause some consumers to believe that other brands of that same food do contain trans fat, which may not be accurate.

This does not mean that manufacturers intentionally market their products in a deceptive manner. However, as consumers, it is important for us to understand how labeling claims can affect our perceptions and bias our evaluation of a product's benefits. Let's consider a few types of misleading advertising which could result in consumer misperceptions.

Cholesterol Label

Failure to disclose key facts. Perhaps the most straightforward example of misleading advertising is when product packaging simply fails to disclose an important fact that is relevant to consumers. In these cases, when a feature of the product is not listed on product packaging, a consumer might not have all of the relevant information about that product, thus resulting in a misperception of the product's benefits.

Let's say you have a cold, and you visit a local pharmacy in search of an over-the-counter remedy, such as NyQuil or Sudafed. You come across a product that sounds particularly appealing—let's call it Cold-Be-Gone—because it provides a wide range of benefits: Relief from chest congestion, sore throat, stuffy nose, and body aches. However, because of an active ingredient in the product, it can also cause blurred vision and nausea. Although the package for Cold-Be-Gone lists this active ingredient, it does not list these two potential side effects. Here, access to this omitted information might have prevented you from buying Cold-Be-Gone.

Advertising implies something "unique" about a product. Another type of potentially misleading advertising—more subtle and perhaps more frequent than the failure to disclose key facts—occurs when product labeling implies that a product contains a feature that cannot be found in other, similar products. In such instances, a claim about a product's attributes ("Contains No Sodium") could be misinterpreted as meaning that it is one of the only products on the market that contains those attributes.

One example of this occurred in the early 1990s when a few vegetable oils, including Crisco and Mazola products, were marketed as containing "no cholesterol." Though accurate, this claim was arguably misleading because it could have led consumers to believe that these brands were the only cholesterol-free options on the market—an incorrect assumption, given that no brand of vegetable oil contains cholesterol.

Advertising implies that a product contains an absent feature. The way in which a product is labeled also could lead to the misperception that a product contains a benefit that it actually does not. This occurs when a claim about one product feature ("Low-Fat") leads consumers to incorrectly believe that the product also holds some other favorable characteristic (low calories).

At a convenience store, for example, you might see a wall of tobacco products hanging behind the cashier. While waiting in line to pay for your purchase, you glance at this wall, and see a carton of cigarettes with packaging that says "Additive-Free!" Upon reading this, the average consumer might come to interpret this claim as meaning that that particular brand of cigarettes is free of harmful chemicals and thus "healthier" than other cigarette brands—an inaccurate belief that holds major health consequences.

Identifying misleading claims and preventing misperceptions. As consumers, we are hit with a barrage of advertising messages every day, and the framing of these messages can sometimes lead us to hold perceptions of a product that are not entirely accurate. Unfortunately, misleading advertising is not always easy to identify. For instance, failure to disclose a key fact is an obvious instance of misleading advertising, but this type of misleading advertising can be very difficult to spot—if a key fact is not presented, how are we supposed to know?

Fortunately, agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) aim to protect consumers from misleading advertising. For instance, FDA recently issued a warning letter to KIND regarding the labeling of several of their snack bars. In this letter, it was requested that KIND remove the "healthy" label on several of their snack bars. This request was made because these particular KIND bars do not meet the current requirements for "healthy" labeling, and this could potentially lead to faulty consumer perceptions.

But agencies like FDA and FTC should not be solely responsible for guarding against misperceptions. It is up to consumers like you and me to actively watch out for potentially misleading advertising.

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