How Health-Related Disclaimers are Fooling You

We take a look at how people interpret advertising disclaimers

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If Skechers had included a disclosure in its advertising for Shape-ups and Resistance Runner shoes, it might have avoided a class action lawsuit last year—not to mention a $40 million settlement to provide customer refunds. Skechers was accused of making fitness claims that were poorly supported by the scientific research it cited. But current marketing research suggests that consumers might have been just as likely to buy the shoes even if the weight loss and glute-toning promises came with a disclaimer. In fact, we may have been even more likely to buy.

People are highly irrational when it comes to interpreting disclaimers in advertising, it turns out. When it's a company-generated disclosure, we often trust the brand more. When it's a government-regulated disclosure, we tend to trust the brand less, even if the disclaimer doesn't actually contain negative information.

For Companies, "Truth Sells"

As consumers become both more health-educated and more vocal in social media channels, companies are shifting toward accountability to boost their images. Representatives from McDonald's and Domino's Pizza have publicly apologized for giving customers the short end of the nutrition stick, letting food quality slip in the name of profits.

As part of the "transparency campaign," they've even owned their failures in their advertising. Domino's let thousands of customers submit photos of greasy, unappetizing Domino's pizzas and published them online. McDonald's aired footage that showed how the burgers in its ads are studio-crafted. While such disclaimers are shockingly unflattering, they usually come with a promise to do better. (Except for McDonald's Photoshopped-behind-the-scenes burger; they made no promise of a fresh one in real life.)

[See 10 Things the Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know.]

Now, some disclaimers really are meant to inform. Take Burger King's admission that some of its burgers were contaminated with horse meat. Regardless of intent, corporate transparency usually earns our trust. They gain our agreement ("mm hmm, that food sure is nasty"), which puts us in a receptive frame of mind for what follows: the promise of better food. And we believe them. Why would they admit to sketchy meat if they weren't going to fix it?

I don't know if McDonald's and Domino's are using higher-quality, fresher ingredients, but both saw their disclaimer ads go viral. And many once-dissatisfied customers have vowed in online forums to give them another chance.

[See Popular but Dangerous: 3 Vitamins That Can Hurt You.]

Disclosures about covert marketing tactics like product placement and sponsored blogging don't always make us more skeptical, either. According to a study just published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, when people are informed of stealth marketing in an ad prior to experiencing it, they tend to keep a favorable opinion of the brand despite the angling.

What some call an honest conversation, others might call propaganda—but disclosures aren't always part of a marketing campaign, says J. Scott Armstrong, a marketing professor at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Persuasive Advertising. "Companies want to have a good reputation," he says. "They don't want to have people using their products who shouldn't be, or people using their products inappropriately."

Why Government-Regulated Disclaimers Backfire

Oddly, while company-generated disclosures often earn our trust, government-regulated disclosures turn us off, Armstrong says. In a paper published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing last year, Armstrong joined Kesten C. Green, a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia, to examine 18 studies on government-mandated disclaimers. The findings: These disclosures tend to cause confusion and weaken brand trust—even when people don't read them. "The disclaimers led to confusion among customers in all 18 studies," Armstrong explains. "They were shown to be harmful or ineffective to customers in all 15 studies that examined consumer effects."

Armstrong and Green were called in as expert witnesses for a case that went to the Supreme Court in 2002. They were asked to help determine whether it was fair to impose a disclaimer on American Academy of Implant Dentistry advertising. The disclaimer had nothing to do with medical risk; AAID was being asked to disaffiliate its credentials with a certain dentistry organization.

[See False Claims on Mouthwash? How to Decipher Product Labels.]

In an experiment, Armstrong and Green studied the response of 317 consumers to two similar ads, one with a disclaimer and one without. The company with the disclaimer had implant dentistry credentials, like AAID. The other did not. In the end, participants placed more trust in the ad with no disclaimer—for the company with no credentials. "People were scared off by it without understanding why they were hearing it," Armstrong says. The disclaimer confused customers and harmed their decision-making; in short, it wasn't fair.

Armstrong explains the biases this way: Companies use direct language in their disclaimers, while regulators tend to write complex disclaimers with language that is not always pertinent to the consumer. "You go on the computer to buy a product and you're allowed to read the 10 pages of dense writing that's hard to read," he says. "A fraction of one percent would actually read that."

It's certainly easier to make inferences than stumble through pages of small-print legalese, and a common assumption is that if there's a need for an official disclaimer, there's a problem.

The Boomerang Effect of Warnings

Warnings appear to produce flawed assumptions in consumers, too: whereas disclaimers with neutral information often baffle and lower brand trust, people tend to ignore warnings or actually value the product higher. In their publication, Green and Armstrong cite a study in which adding a warning to a product yielded an average gain in compliance of only 15.7 percent. For everyone else, the warning had no effect or actually reduced safe behavior.

"Surgeon General warnings against drinking alcohol have been shown to lead more men to drink alcohol," Armstrong says. "It's like the old saying, 'If it's banned in Boston, then it must be something interesting."

[See 7 Marketing Claims That Took Heat.]

Disclaimers can also fool us into giving up responsibility, Armstrong adds. "People tend to think that, well, there are pluses and minuses but the government has looked at it." But there are limitations to regulators' knowledge of products, as well as their understanding of what is best for consumers.

As for company-generated disclosures, we may be too quick to relinquish skepticism there, too. Especially if we hear something we want to hear—say, about the terrific nutrient quality of a certain fast-food.

As it stands, disclaimers often persuade, confuse, bore us, or incite rebellion. What do you think: In order to protect our health, do we need more disclosure, or less?

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Chelsea Bush is a Utah-based journalist on a mission to tap the secrets of psychology to end laziness, cheeseburger addictions, and other annoying habits that keep us flabby. Join the cause here in the comments and at @chelseawriting.