How Do Front and Back Package Labels Influence Beliefs about Health Claims?

Article excerpt

One dilemma with health claims is that too much information can confuse consumers and too little information can mislead them. A controlled study is used to examine the effectiveness of various front-sided health claims when used in combination with a full health claim on the back of a package. The results indicate that combining short health claims on the front of a package with fun health claims on the back of the package leads consumers to more fully process and believe the claim. The basic finding that using two sides of a package (short claim on front; long on back) increases the believability of health claims is relevant for policymakers, consumers, and researchers.

**********

During the FDA's consideration of a soy health claim in the late 1990s, an important issue was how this claim should be worded on packages. While some believed a longer, more complete health claim would be most accurate, others believed a shorter claim would be more easily processed and more persuasive. The concern over FDA claims being accurate but misunderstood is not without support. While the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was intended to make food labels more useful and informative for consumers, consumers still do not always comprehend nutrition information (Szykman et al. 1997). Many are skeptical of health claims, and they believe such claims are incomplete, misleading, or trivial (Preston 2002; Silverglade 1991). The same is true with health warning labels, such as those on alcohol (Creyer, Kozup, and Burton 2002). Part of the problem may be the way in which such information is formatted (Burton and Andrews 1996; Ippolito and Mathios 1991). In some cases too much information overwhelms consumers, and in other cases too little information misleads them (Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn 1977).

Roe et al. (1999) found that consumers view front-label information as a summary of a product's benefits or hazards. Presumably, if consumers found interesting or important information incompletely described on the front of a product, they would be motivated to seek clarification on other parts of the package. Unfortunately, the Roe et al. study, like many others, examined only front label information. Yet people who are casually skimming a front label might take away only a top-line summary. The more difficult this front-label information is to quickly comprehend, the more likely it will be ignored or misinterpreted. Other consumers, such as those who are nutrition conscious, may be more likely to examine all sides of a package in detail (Bender and Derby 1992). Effective nutrition labels should take both these less involved and more involved shoppers into account (Moorman 1996). One way to address the different information needs of both groups would be to use converging information on both the front and back labels of a package.

One combination of information that might be appropriate for a wide range of consumers would involve back-panel information that provides complete nutritional details and front-panel information that provides a brief summary of these details. In such a case, a casual shopper could skim the front and have the basic notion of the claim, and a more involved shopper could find detailed information on the back of the package. We hypothesize that the presence of a short claim on the front label makes it easier to process attribute-specific product information. To the extent this information is unambiguous, it should improve the believability or persuasiveness of the health claims.

Since we know that health claims on the front panel of a package can influence purchase behavior, our research question then becomes how much front-panel information is needed to persuasively communicate the health benefits or the health hazards of a product. Following a review of how nutrition label information might be processed, a study is described which compares consumers who are exposed to a combination of labels with complete information on the back along with shorter summary labels on the front. …