12 September 2014

Warnings’ Shelf Life

Welcome back. I saw a recent announcement from my alma mater that a multidisciplinary team of faculty members was awarded a grant to study tobacco warnings, specifically, to examine how anti-smoking messages can be effective among youth, low-income and low-education groups.
Cigarette pack warning that will
likely change and get more graphic

It brought to mind a study from a year ago that found warnings of adverse side effects can backfire over time. Did you hear about it? No? Oh, you’ve got to let me tell you about it.

Warnings Can Backfire

Collaborators from Tel Aviv University, INSEAD in Singapore, and New York University tested the effects of product health warnings in four experiments. In each experiment, different test participants were shown an advertisement for a product with or without a warning.

In the first experiment, the participants, all smokers, viewed an ad for a supposedly new cigarette. Half the participants, including those who had and had not seen the warning, were told they would receive any packs of cigarettes they ordered within 24 hours. As regulatory agencies would hope, those who had seen the warning ordered 75% fewer packs than those who had not seen the warning.

The other half of the participants--again including those who had and had not seen the warning--were told they could order the new cigarettes but delivery would take 3 months. Of these participants, those who had seen the warning ordered nearly 500% more packs than those who had not seen the warning; the opposite of what regulatory agencies would hope.

Packets of artificial sweetener.
(multiple websites)

The flip between a near-future and distant-future response happened again in the second experiment. These test participants viewed an ad, either with or without a warning, for a supposedly new artificial sweetener. Half were told they could buy the product immediately; half were delayed 2 weeks before being told they could buy the product; and both halves included participants who had and had not seen the warning. The investigators found those who ordered immediately bought 94% fewer packets of sweetener if they had seen the warning, while those who had seen the warning but couldn’t order for two weeks bought 265% more packets.

The results of two other experiments were similar. In those experiments, participants viewed ads with and without warnings for supposedly new erectile dysfunction and hair loss medications, then rated the products’ attractiveness and trustworthiness. The ratings reversed when done under near-future and distant-future conditions.

Construal-Level Theory

Whoa! you shout. What’s going on? Did delays negate the value of the warnings? In a word, Yep. The experimental results can be explained by--and the investigators predicted them by--construal-level theory.

You’re familiar with selfies, right? Well, construal-level theory has nothing to do with selfies, but the theory does focus on the self as the reference point for psychological distance (time, space, social). The farther removed something is from immediate and direct experience, the higher its level of construal; the more abstract the something becomes and the less we see its details, which are low-level construal.

As regards product health warnings, increased psychological distances--delays in the experiments--deemphasize details of the warnings (i.e., the actual message). Instead, the overall trustworthiness of the product is emphasized (increased) by the mere presence of a warning, which becomes more abstract with delay, reflecting higher-level construal.

Salvador Dali's lithograph, Lincoln in Dalivision, close and far. From a distance, the details of Dali’s wife Gala looking out the window (left) are transformed into Abraham Lincoln (definitely more trustworthy). (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_in_Dalivision)
Wrap Up

All this is to say that, in accordance with construal-level theory, health warnings should reduce a product’s appeal in the near future, but they may backfire and increase the product’s appeal in the distant future. The investigators call this outcome “the ironic effect of warnings.”

If you find that outcome counterintuitive, don’t feel bad. The investigators surveyed 23 marketing professors and all failed to predict the results. Making anti-smoking warnings that really work will be a challenge for my alma mater’s faculty team.

Thanks for stopping by.


Research paper from Psychological Science:
Articles on the paper on Forbes and Science Daily websites:
Paper on construal-level theory in Psychological Review:

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