An Examination of Consumer's Perceptions of Purpose and Content of Corrective Advertising

George E. Belch, San Diego State University
Michael A. Belch, San Diego State University
Robert B. Settle, San Diego State University
Lisa M. De Lucchi, San Diego State University
ABSTRACT - Consumer's ability to comprehend the purpose and content of corrective advertising is considered by examining their perceptions of two FTC mandated corrective print advertisements - one for STP motor oil additive and one by Sugar Association, Inc. The results suggest that consumers are somewhat naive as to the purpose of corrective advertising. Also, education level, product usage and message format are shown to have an effect on consumers' perceptions of the purpose of corrective advertising and on their perceptions of efficacy claims refuted in the corrective messages
[ to cite ]:
George E. Belch, Michael A. Belch, Robert B. Settle, and Lisa M. De Lucchi (1982) ,"An Examination of Consumer's Perceptions of Purpose and Content of Corrective Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 327-332.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 327-332


George E. Belch, San Diego State University

Michael A. Belch, San Diego State University

Robert B. Settle, San Diego State University

Lisa M. De Lucchi, San Diego State University


Consumer's ability to comprehend the purpose and content of corrective advertising is considered by examining their perceptions of two FTC mandated corrective print advertisements - one for STP motor oil additive and one by Sugar Association, Inc. The results suggest that consumers are somewhat naive as to the purpose of corrective advertising. Also, education level, product usage and message format are shown to have an effect on consumers' perceptions of the purpose of corrective advertising and on their perceptions of efficacy claims refuted in the corrective messages

Deceptive or misleading advertising has become an area of increasing concern over the past decade as the Federal Trade Commission has attempted to develop an advertising environment that is conductive to well-informed purchase decisions by consumers. In situations where alleged deceptive or misleading information has been given to consumers, the FTC has relied on its authority to require the affirmative disclosure of new or additional information, so that the consumer will be able to make a more informed choice. One variation of the FTC's use of affirmative disclosure remedies is corrective advertising. Corrective advertising is a special case of affirmative disclosure designed to dispel residual effects of inaccurate or misleading information in prior advertising. The rationale underlying corrective advertising is that erroneous beliefs created by past deceptive advertising may continue even after deceptive claims are discontinued, unless the past deception and true facts are disclosed to the consumer.

Since its adoption as a method for dispelling the residual effects created by deceptive advertising, corrective advertising has stimulated such interest and controversy in regard to its appropriateness and effectiveness as a remedy to misleading advertising. One major concern regarding corrective advertising is that this form of disclosure is not really understood by consumers and may be ineffective in dispelling the residual effects of deceptive advertising. In order for beliefs and attitudes to be restored to their previous level, consumers must be able to comprehend both the purpose and the content of corrective advertisements. Miscomprehension of corrective advertising impedes the ability of this remedy to achieve its intended objectives and thus lessens its effectiveness. The purpose of this study is to examine the effectiveness of two forms of corrective advertising that were instituted in compliance with orders of the Federal Trade Commission. The corrective advertisements examined in this study are those that were ordered to be run by STP Corporation and by Sugar Association, Inc. More specifically, this study focuses on the ability of consumers to 1) comprehend the purpose of corrective advertising and 2) comprehend the meaning of the information conveyed in corrective ads. Also examined are differences in comprehension by education levels and the effects of product usage on perceptions of the corrective claims and advertisers using them.

Previous Research On Corrective Advertising

A number of studies have examined the effects of corrective advertising on consumers' brand perceptions, attitudes and purchase intentions. Dyer and Kuehl (1974) examined the effects of message source (F.T.C. vs. the firm) and directness and intensity with which guilt is disclosed on corrective advertising effectiveness. They found that Commission-source, and in particular Commission Source-high strength, was more effective than company-source messages in decreasing favorable attitudes in print media, although there was no difference among the two in broadcast media. Dyer and Kuehl also found that a print corrective message from a company source resulted in a more trustworthy image for the firm than a commission-source message.

KassarJian, Carlson and Rusin (1975) also found that positive attitudes created by a deceptive advertisement could be reversed through corrective advertising. They also found that the negative effects of corrective advertising did not carry over to the retail sponsor. Studying the effects of corrective advertising presented in a video medium, Mazis and Adkinson (1976) found that there was a negative effect on consumers' beliefs about the product, as not only were the target beliefs affected. but there was a halo effect whereby beliefs not mentioned in the corrective message were also affected. Mazis and Adkinson also found that 39% of the subjects, as measured through aided recall, misperceived the corrective message.

Other studies have examined the effects of one vs two sided message presentation (Semenick 1977), message format (Semenick 1980), number of exposures (Mizerski, Allison and Calvert 1980) and longitudinal effects of corrective messages (Sawyer and Semenick, 1977. Dyer and Kuehl, 1978. Armstrong, Gurol and Ross, 1979). In sum these studies have demonstrated that 1) the form of the corrective message will yield different effects on attitudes 2) the effects of corrective message upon beliefs about the product are mixed 3) corrective ads have no significant effects on the sponsor's image, consumer purchase intention and/or product usage 4) the effects that do occur are generally short lasting and 5) that more educated consumers are more likely to change their beliefs as a result of viewing corrective advertising. Finally a study by Jacoby, Nelson and Hoyer (1981) found that remedial advertising statements proposed by the FTC for two analgesic products were miscomprehended as much as, or even more than, the advertising they were supposed to remedy.

The results of these studies, while shedding some light on the effectiveness of corrective advertising, do leave a number of questions unanswered. For example, do consumers really comprehend the purpose of corrective advertisements, and the message these ads attempt to convey? Secondly, are factors such as comprehension of the purpose of the ad or comprehension of the corrective message, affected by factors such as education or product usage? Finally, does the format of the corrective message itself lead to higher levels of comprehension and greater effects on beliefs.


Corrective Messages

Two corrective advertisements mandated by the Federal Trade Commission were tested in this study, one for STP motor additive and the other for the Sugar Association. Inc. In 1977 the FTC found deceptive, STP's claim that its motor oil additive reduced oil consumption by as much as 20: (FTC Decisions, 1977) and ordered a cease and desist order. STP's subsequent violation of this order led the FTC to pursue civil penalty actions against STP which resulted in a $700,000 settlement $200,000 of which was mandated to be used for print corrective advertisements. These advertisements appeared in 14 periodicals with an estimated readership of 78 million. One interesting aspect of this order was that the intended audience for the messages included not only the general public, but also business and advertising executives. The FTC's goal in disseminating the message among the latter two groups was to emphasize the deterrence effect of corrective advertising. The specified media in the FTC order included the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Newsweek. However the corrective messages were also seen by many nonbusiness consumers. The enforcement order signed by STP required that they inform consumers that:

1) STP has agreed to a $700,000 settlement with the FTC and

2) Tests conducted by STP did not support the company's oil additive claims of reduced oil consumption.

The Sugar Association's corrective advertisement was the result of the FTC's first compulsory requirement corrective advertising which specified a design standard for copy and placement of a corrective message. The FTC found deceptive a claim by Sugar Information, Inc, a prominent sugar manufacturers' association, that eating sugar or foods containing sugar before meals would help curb appetites and aid in weight reduction. The FTC ordered the association to disseminate full page print corrective messages in specific issues of seven consumer magazines. The text of each ad is shown in the Appendix.

There are several differences between the two corrective messages. The STP advertisement directly cites the Federal Trade Commission as providing the impetus for the message and contest of the copy. The ad is very direct in informing consumers of the deceptive claim made by STP. The sugar advertisement, on the other hand, is less direct, with the motive for running the advertisement not being mentioned. While the Sugar Association message does present the required corrective message, there is no mention of the FTC nor any reason offered as to why the ad was run. Also, while the STP ad consisted of the message only, the sugar ad superimposed the message over a pictorial background.


A self-administered questionnaire was developed which included the actual copy of the STP and Sugar Association corrective advertisements and specific questions relating to comprehension of the purpose and content of the advertisements, beliefs about the products, purchase intentions and product usage information. Respondents were instructed in the questionnaire to read each advertisement and then answer the questions related to each. This method of administration may have resulted in the corrective messages receiving more attention than they might in a normal reading situation. However, given the objectives of this study it was necessary that the respondents read the messages before responding to the questionnaire. Cost limitations prohibited the use of personal interviews which would have afforded greater control over the administration of the corrective messages.


Questionnaires were distributed to 420 respondents selected as a quota sample reflective of demographics of a major metropolitan area on the West Coast. From the initial distribution, 405 were returned with 402 usable. Several questionnaires were eliminated for not completing the entire form. The final sample consisted of 255 males and 146 females with an average age of 42 and average education of 13 years.


The first issue considered was whether or not consumers understand the purpose or content of corrective advertisements. In order to test consumers' perception of the purpose of corrective messages, respondents were told that the advertisements they had just read appeared in several magazines and were presented five possible reasons the company ran this particular ad. (See Table I) Respondents were asked to indicate on a five point scale the likelihood that the ad was run for a particular reason. Content comprehension of the corrective message was tested by asking respondents to indicate their level of agreement with two efficacy statements that were refuted in the corrective advertisements

The result of the comprehension questions for the STP message are presented in Table 1.



The results in Table 1 indicate that the respondents were somewhat naive as to the purpose of the corrective message. The most likely perceived reasons as to why STP ran the corrective messages were "to sell more of their product and because STP was ordered to do so by the U.S. government". The sales intention reason is not really reflective of the purpose of the message and suggests that the respondents were unaware of the remedial intention of the corrective message. The perception that the ad was the result of a government mandate does reflect on accurate understanding as to why the ad was run. However considering the copy of the ad, one might have expected this reason to be given more often. The statement which best describes the remedial objective of the corrective message ("Because STP felt they should correct a false impression created by a previous ad") was only moderately perceived as reason for the advertisement. With respect to comprehension of content, the results suggest that respondents were somewhat skeptical concerning the performance of STP, as responses to the two efficacy statements indicated more disagreement than agreement.

Respondents exhibited stronger opinions in respect to the purpose and content of the sugar association corrective message. As can be seen in Table 2, respondents were even more naive about the purpose of the sugar ad than the STP ad. The primary reason cited for the running of the sugar ad was to sell more of the product. The corrective sugar advertisements were not generally perceived as being the result of government pressure and were only moderately perceived as having a remedial purpose. These weaker perceptions as to the government mandated, corrective intention of the sugar ad versus the STP ad are understandable as the text of the Sugar Association corrective message did not mention the F:C or any other regulatory agency as having any connection with the advertisement, nor was the corrective statement as direct as in the STP advertisement.



With respect to content comprehension of the sugar ad, respondents exhibit a high level of disagreement with the efficacy claim that "eating sugar before meals will help you to lose weight." While this finding appears to indicate accurate comprehension of the message, it may also be the result of general beliefs and not totally due to the impact of the corrective ad. The Sugar Association ad claim that sugar is an important part of a well balanced diet received more disagreement overall than agreement.


In order to examine the effects of education level on comprehension the sample was divided into three levels of educational attainment. .he first group included those with a high school education or less (1-12 years), the second level consisted of those who attended or graduated from college (13 - 16 years of education) and the third group included those with post graduate education (greater than 16 years). Table 3 presents the results of the comprehension variables for the STP ad across the three education levels.



As can be seen in Table 3, for the STP ad there were significant differences among the three educational groups for three of the ad purpose measures. Respondents in the lowest education category were more likely to believe that the reason for the STP ad was to sell knower of the product or because other ads were not effective in selling the product (although the latter reason was generally perceived as unlikely by all three educational levels). Significant differences were also found with respect to perception of the remedial purpose for the corrective message, as respondents in the first two education levels were more likely than the highest education level respondents to perceive the reason for the corrective message to be to correct a false impression created by previous advertising. Closer examination of Table 3 indicates that respondents in the highest educational group saw the corrective message as resulting from government mandate. Considering the nature of the STP corrective message it is logical to draw this conclusion as to the reason for the STP advertisement.



Table 4 presents the results of the comprehension measures by for the Sugar Association corrective message. As can be seen in Table 4, the only purpose comprehension variable which resulted in a significant difference across the three education levels was the to "sell more of the product" measure. While respondents in all three education levels generally felt it was likely that the sugar manufacturers ran the advertisement to sell more of the product, respondents at the highest educational level were more likely to perceive this as the reason than those at the other two levels. With respect to content comprehension, respondents in the lowest education level agreed more with the statement that sugar is an important part of a well-balanced diet than did respondents at the next two education levels. All three education levels disagreed rather strongly with the claim that "eating sugar before meals will help you lose weight".

Also of interest in this study are the effects of product usage on perceptions of corrective message. In order to determine the effects of usage, respondents were classified into three product usage groups, those who use the product regularly, those who use it occasionally and nonusers. No significant differences were found between the three groups with respect to comprehension of the purpose of either the STP or Sugar Association corrective messages. However, there are differences with respect to content comprehension among the various user status groups. As shown in Table 5. respondents who use STP regularly are more likely than occasional and nonusers to agree that STP motor additive will reduce oil consumption and that regular use of STP may prolong the life of a car engine. Actually disagreement with the STP efficacy claims increases as frequency of use of STP decreases.



With respect to the sugar advertising claims, all three product usage groups disagree that with the statement that eating sugar before meals helps people lose weight, although those who never use sugar show more disagreement than do the user groups. Regarding the importance of sugar in a well balanced diet, Table 5 shows that disagreement with this statement increases as sugar usage decreases.


The results of this study indicate that consumers do not accurately comprehend the purpose of corrective advertising. For both of the corrective messages examined in this study, the primary purposes perceived for running the advertisements was "to sell more of the product". However, government mandate was seen as equally motivating for the STP ad. Respondents in this study showed only moderate comprehension of the possible purpose of this messages being to corrective false impressions created by previous advertising. These findings are consistent with those of Mazis and Adkinson (1976) who found that 39: of their subjects misperceived the intent of corrective advertising. The results presented here do suggest that consumers were somewhat skeptical with respect to the efficacy claims made by both STP and the Sugar Association. However, caution must be taken in attributing these findings to the content of the corrective messages read by the respondents. Perceptions regarding the efficacy claims of the two products may have been a carry over from past beliefs and not a result of reading the corrective messages. Since a non-exposed control group was not used in this study it is difficult to separate out these effects.

The miscomprehension of the purpose of corrective advertisements raises some questions concerning the ability of corrective messages to dispel the residual effects of deceptive advertising. One of the primary objectives of corrective advertising is to restore consumers' beliefs and attitudes to the level that existed prior to exposure to the deceptive claims. Comprehension of the purpose of the corrective message is an integral part of this restoration process as it provides the consumer with a basis for synthesizing and integrating the corrective material presented.

This study also indicates that both education level and product usage status have an impact on the comprehension of corrective advertising. Consumers with a high school education or less perceived the purpose of a corrective message to be to sell more of the product - a belief that was not shared by higher educated consumers. For the most highly educated group, the primary reason seen for the STP message was that of government orders to run the ad while the intention to correct false impressions made by past ads was seen as less likely.

Product usage did not have an effect on perceptions of the purpose of the corrective message but there were significant differences with regard to perceived efficacy claims of the products under scrutiny in the corrective messages. The results of this study suggest that regular users of a particular product or brand are more likely to perceive efficacy claims as valid than are occasional or nonusers; even after reading a corrective message that refutes these claims. These findings suggest that product usage either results from. creates on reinforces beliefs that are difficult to alter through corrective advertising. It is also possible that users of a product may find the discrepant information contained in a corrective message difficult to accept from a cognitive consistency standpoint and thus choose to reject the corrective claim. Whatever the case, these findings suggest that it may be more difficult for corrective advertising to change beliefs of regular product users a market segment that may be most in need of information regarding the true performance of the product on brand.

This study also indicates that differences in the comprehension of the purpose of corrective ad may result from the style and content of the message. Respondents in this study exhibited a higher level of comprehension for the more overt STP ad than for the Sugar Association advertisement. This finding corroborates those of Dyer and Kuehl (1974) who found that commission - source, high strength, print corrective messages were more effective than any type of company - source corrective messages. Although the FTC was not the source of the STP advertisement, the condition was explicitly referred to in the ad as the initiator of the corrective message. Also, the intensity and directness with which STP corporation's possible guilt is mentioned is stronger than in the sugar advertisement where any wrong doing is alluded to only indirectly.

These findings suggest that the comprehension of corrective advertisements may be a function of the FTC's perceived involvement with the case as well as the intensity with which the possible deception is disclosed. The FTC, with its right to review corrective advertisements prior to their release, could enforce more stringent and overt disclosures by advertisers in order to increase consumers' understanding of the purpose of corrective advertisements.

In summary, this study on the comprehension of corrective advertising provides additional information to the existing debate on corrective advertising 2nd its viability as a remedy for deceptive advertising. Future studies of corrective advertising and its ability to dispel the residual effects of misleading or deceptive message should give consideration to consumers' perceptions of the purpose of these ads. This study also suggests that variables such as education and product usage may moderate the effectiveness of corrective claims


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