Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Role of Qualifying Language on Consumer Perceptions of Environmental Claims

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Role of Qualifying Language on Consumer Perceptions of Environmental Claims

Article excerpt

A copy-test of seven enviromnental claims on aerosol packages shows that consumers interpret general, unqualified claims (e.g., environmentally friendly or ozone friendly) as meaning the product is safe for the environment in both an absolute (safe) and a relative (safer) sense. These perceptions of environmental safety are enhanced by specific qualifiers for general claims such as No CFCs and general qualifiers for specific claims. In addition, the results show that almost all specific environmental claims improve consumers' perceptions of the aerosol product relative to general claims for enviromnental benefits of the product. Implications for marketing and public policy professionals arc presented.

When it comes to a decision on using environmental claims in advertising and packaging, marketers are faced with conflicting perspectives regarding the role these factors play in consumer purchase behavior. On the one hand, three-fourths of all consumers see themselves as environmentalists who are willing to purchase ecologically-sound products or goods and services and make ecologically-conscious decisions (the proenvironmental view) (Fisher 1990). Furthermore, 77 percent of consumers consider the company's environmental reputation when buying a product (Kirkpatrick 1990) and have shown a willingness to pay a little more for environmentally safe packaging (Jay 1990). On the other hand, studies have shown that consumers do not understand many of the environmental claims they encounter in the marketplace (Cude 1991), lack an in-depth understanding of environmental terms, and tend to overgeneralize the level of safety from environmental claims (Morris, Hastak, and Mazis 1995). Moreover, research suggests a hig h degree of skepticism as evidenced by the fact that as many as half of all consumers dismiss environmental claims as gimmicky (Environmental Research Associates [ERA] 1990) and that brands that make environmental claims are "no better for the environment than brands that do not make environmental claims" (the skeptical perspective) (Mayer, Scammon, and Zick 1993).

The research on these perspectives has no doubt contributed to our knowledge of overall perceptions of environmental claims. This study extends this knowledge by examining consumer perceptions of actual environmental claims and variations in those claims to help provide insight into cause and effect relationships (Cook and Campbell 1979) and enhance the external validity of environmental claim findings (Calder, Phillips, and Tybout 1982; Lynch 1982). Such an analysis will help in assessing whether the first, pro-environmental perspective, or the second, more skeptical perspective will manifest itself from actual express and implied environmental claims.

From a regulatory perspective, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is charged with regulating deceptive advertising claims in the marketplace (FTC 1992), has been actively involved in cases involving specific environmental claims since 1990. As reported by Scammon and Mayer (1995), the FTC brought thirty-five litigation cases between 1990-1994 involving environmental claims such as ozone friendly and environmentally friendly. Scammon and Mayer note that the product categories investigated have been broad, with aerosols and plastic bags the most common product classes challenged. Among cases dealing with aerosol propellants, the FTC found that claims such as ozone friendly were deceptive because other substances in the products were ozone-depleting (Zipatone Spray Cement 1991). The FTC also noted in DeMert & Dougherty, Inc. (1993) that, even when an aerosol does not contain substances that harm the ozone layer, a general claim that the product is environmentally safe may be deceptive if it causes or con tributes to other types of harm, such as ground-level smog or pollution.

The FTC litigation efforts have raised a number of issues. Among these are whether a claim is deceptive because of what is said or implied in a specific claim such as No CFCs or because of what is omitted from a general claim (e. …

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