Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Use of Vivid Stimuli to Enhance Comprehension of the Content of Product Warning Messages

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Use of Vivid Stimuli to Enhance Comprehension of the Content of Product Warning Messages

Article excerpt

The Use of Vivid Stimuli to Enhance Comprehension of the Content of Product Warning Messages

Marketers are under a legal mandate to communicate accurately the hazards associated with product use to consumers (Ross 1981). Yet, thousands of consumers are injured annually using consumer products (McIuturff 1981). Moreover, some data indicate product warnings themselves may not be communicated effectively (Jacoby and Hoyer 1982; Morris et al. 1986). Clearly, improving a marketer's ability to communicate the hazards associated with product use could have significant consequences.

Some firms are beginning to use concrete language and pictorial symbols in an effort to make the content of warning messages more vivid and, hence, more understandable to consumers. It is intuitively compelling to argue that these vivid product warnings will be more memorable and have greater impact than more pallid, abstract warnings. Vivid messages, by being more concrete or image-provoking, are popularly believed to be more memorable and to have a greater impact on judgments than abstract material. However, research in the vividness literature is replete with failures to demonstrate reliably that vivid material will have any consistent impact on memory or judgments (e.g., Taylor and Thompson 1982).

More recently the vividness literature (Taylor and Thompson 1982; Fiske and Taylor 1984; Kisielius and Sternhal 1984, 1986) suggests that much of the early research may have been methodologically flawed and guided by an inadequate conceptual model of how consumers respond to vivid stimuli. In this revised view, vivid material may serve two necessary communication functions better. Vivid material may be more succesful in attracting consumers' attention and may be more likely to stimulate consumers' thoughts, or cognitive elaborations, on a message. The nature and content of these thoughts, in turn, may serve as the basis for vividness effects on memory or judgment (Kisielius and Sternthal 1984, 1986; Mitchell 1983).

This approach may offer the best conceptual method to study the impact of using vivid stimuli to increase comprehension of product warnings. Vivid product warnings may be more successful in attracting consumers' attention to a warning message and may stimulate a greater amount of cognitive elaboration than would be generated by a more pallid, abstract presentation of the warning message. It may be particularly important to identify the nature of the evaluations generated in response to vivid product warnings. The use of warning messages may improve communication of the hazards associated with product use. Yet use of vivid product warnings might also stimulate the production of negative evaluative thoughts that will serve to discourage purchase.

This paper makes several contributions to the consumer affairs literature. First, it shows that vivid product warnings are a more effective communication tool to use to communicate the hazards associated with product use to consumers. Second, it identifies the types of elaborations that are most likely to be produced by vivid product warnings. Third, it identifies some of the limitations of the vividness effect by showing the impact vivid product warnings have on consumers as they are increasingly more motivated to process product-related information. This is notable as it is not known if the vividness effect is relatively constant or if it will disappear as consumers devote more energy to processing product-related information.


Demonstration of the Vividness Effect

Three legal criteria are used to judge the adequacy of a consumer product warning. In general, courts have held that a consumer product warning must clearly communicate the following information to the potential user (Ross 1981): it must describe the nature of the risk facing consumers, it must identify the magnitude of that risk, and it must describe how to avoid that risk. …

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