A Problem Ignored: Dilution and Negation of Consumer Information by Antifactual Content

Article excerpt

Current conceptions of consumer information do not consider types that may dilute or detract from facts available to consumers about products and services. The article discusses the nature and incidence of such antifactual content, identifies research and public policy that ignores the content but could benefit from recognizing it, and describes a role for the content in conceptualizing and better assessing consumer information, in order to provide researchers, regulators, advertisers, and consumers with more accurate evaluations.

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This first of two articles argues that a type of message content used frequently in advertising and other promotional communication has been ignored in research and public policy on consumer information. It is called antifactual content because, rather than being informative, i.e., a true fact claim, about the product or service, it is either noninformative, providing no fact at all about the item, or misinformative, providing a false fact about it. Consideration of such claims should be incorporated into analysis of consumer information.

Antifactual claims are those that in explicit form are not factual about the item. Claims may be made both explicitly and impliedly, with "explicit" content being what is literally stated, such as the words of this sentence as they appear on this page. "Implied" refers to what consumers see the message to be saying and to mean, which thus are the words of the sentence as they appear in the consumer's perception.

While the implied content may include the explicit, what is most significant for analysis is that it also may exclude or distort some or all of the explicit content and may include additional content that can be far afield from what was explicitly stated. In the old cliche of Freudian psychology, I say "Hello" to you and my intended implication is merely that I am engaging in common courtesy, but you may hear me saying "I like you" or "I don't like you."

In consumer information a claim that is explicitly factual may imply additional fact claims. In some instances the implied fact may be false even though the explicit fact is true. In a recent deceptive advertising case, the true explicit claim was that Doan's had a special ingredient for back pain that other pain relievers did not. The implied claim found false was that Doan's was thereby more effective for back pain than the others (Novartis 1999).

More pertinent here is that a claim that is not explicitly factual about the advertised item, an antifactual claim, may also be less than truthful about the item. The first of three such types this article identifies is explicitly opinion, which means the explicit wording, as in "Our bread is the best you can buy," states a subjective evaluation rather than objective fact. The second type is a claim, often called a joke or spoof claim, that consumers may be thought to take as obviously false in explicit form. The third type is a claim explicitly about the consumer rather than the advertised item, for example the famous "You deserve a break today." All of these claims may imply facts about the item that may be false, making them misinformative, or, if they imply no fact at all, noninformative. In either of the latter two cases, which I argued here occur often, the claims are antifactual, meaning they may detract from information rather than add to it.

Despite such possibilities, what I believe to be the most prominent lines of research and government policymaking on consumer information interpret such information as coming almost entirely from explicitly factual claims about the item. The antifactual claims and their potential impacts are scarcely mentioned in research on advertising information, or in regulatory policies that try to improve quantity and quality of information for consumers. Such omission leads researchers to conclude that ads are higher in information, and leads regulators to conclude that they are lower in deceptiveness, than is thought here to be accurate. …