Correcting Corrective Advertising

Jacob Jacoby, Purdue University
Margaret C. Nelson, Purdue University
Wayne D. Hoyer, Purdue University
ABSTRACT - Prior discussion and research on remedial (i.e., affirmative disclosure and corrective advertising) statements has addressed the impact of such statements on beliefs, attitudes, and purchase intentions. It has been implicitly assumed that such statements are satisfactorily comprehended by the general public. The present investigation tested this assumption using three heterogeneous samples (n=451) and six remedial statements proposed by the Federal Trade Commission. The findings revealed that remedial advertising statements may be miscomprehended as much as -- or even more often than -- the advertising they are supposed to remedy.
[ to cite ]:
Jacob Jacoby, Margaret C. Nelson, and Wayne D. Hoyer (1981) ,"Correcting Corrective Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 416-418.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 416-418

CORRECTING CORRECTIVE ADVERTISING

Jacob Jacoby, Purdue University

Margaret C. Nelson, Purdue University

Wayne D. Hoyer, Purdue University

[This report is a highly condensed version of a longer manuscript (Jacoby, Nelson, and Hoyer, submitted)]

ABSTRACT -

Prior discussion and research on remedial (i.e., affirmative disclosure and corrective advertising) statements has addressed the impact of such statements on beliefs, attitudes, and purchase intentions. It has been implicitly assumed that such statements are satisfactorily comprehended by the general public. The present investigation tested this assumption using three heterogeneous samples (n=451) and six remedial statements proposed by the Federal Trade Commission. The findings revealed that remedial advertising statements may be miscomprehended as much as -- or even more often than -- the advertising they are supposed to remedy.

INTRODUCTION

The subject of deceptive-misleading advertising has experienced increasing regulatory and academic interest over the past decade. The readies that can be employed in the event an ad (or ad campaign) is judged to be deceptive-misleading have also been the focus of considerable discussion. Two of the more controversial of these readies are "corrective advertising" and "affirmative disclosure."

Corrective advertising is advertising mandated by regulators which is designed to modify an erroneous belief purportedly caused by previous advertising for the same product, brand, or service. Affirmative disclosure refers to the requirement that an advertiser provide new or additional information so that the consumer will be better able to make a more informed choice. The intent of the regulators is the same in either case: to somehow affect the censurer's belief structure regarding the advertised product, brand or service. In the case of corrective advertising, this means changing or "correcting'' a purportedly erroneous belief. In the case of affirmative disclosure, this means generating a new belief. In both cases, the implicit objectives are to make consumers better decision makers and to redress sales gains as a result of what are considered to be unfair advertising practices.

Early empirical research focused on the impact that corrective advertising had on such factors as: brand awareness; attitudes toward the brand, the company (i.e., company image), and the advertisement; and purchase intentions. Later research zeroed in on the impact that such remedial advertising had on consumer beliefs.

As is readily recognized, awareness, beliefs, attitudes, and intentions are among the dependent variables traditionally employed to assess communication impact. These variables are usually major components in most widely accepted conceptualizations of the communication process. A consideration of these models -- from the hierarchy-of-effects model (Lavidge and Steiner 1961) through more contemporary conceptualizations (e.g., McGuire 1976; Engel, Blackwell and Kollat 1978, especially Chapters 1 and 13) -- reveals in every case that some degree of comprehension is assumed to precede belief formation and change.

Hence, regulator efforts to use affirmative disclosure and corrective advertising statements to change an existing belief or to provide a new belief, and researcher efforts to assess the impact of such advertising, necessarily rest on a critical assumption -- that the logically prior step of consumer comprehension of the message has been accomplished. This assumption is as yet completely unverified. It stands to reason that before corrective advertising or affirmative disclosure statement can exert the intended impact upon consumer beliefs, it must first be understood by the consumers toward whom it is targeted. If the meaning contained in the remedial massage has not been satisfactorily comprehended, then the logically subsequent step of belief formation or change cannot be achieved.

In other words, there exists the potential for remedial statements to be at least as confusing and misleading as the original advertising messages which they were designed to counteract. The present investigation examined this possibility using the actual language proposed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for implementation in a case which, as of the present writing, is still under active judicial consideration.

This case revolves around two familiar analgesic products manufactured by the Bristol-Myers Company, namely, Bufferin and Excedrin. The FTC contends that an integral part of Bufferin advertising has been the claim that Bufferin is a faster pain reliever and gentler to the stomach than plain aspirin. Similarly, it is asserted that Excedrin advertising contains the claim that the product is a more effective pain reliever than is plain aspirin. The FTC further contends that a significant preparation of American consumers now hold these beliefs as a result of exposure to television advertising.

The problem, according to the FTC staff, is that the degree of empirical proof available to support the claims is not as conclusive as the FTC staff believes it should be. Hence, the FTC staff would like consumers to know that, while a certain amount of proof is available to show that the claim may be true, the degree of proof is insufficient according to some authorities.

With the expectation that the FTC Administrative Law Judge hearing the case would rule in its favor, the FTC Complaint Counsel sent a letter to the Judge. The letter provided two sets of remedial statements, see for each product, and proposed that one of the statements in each set be mandated for the respective products.

"For inclusion in Excedrin advertising, the disclosure that:

1. Excedrin has not been proven to be a more effective pain reliever than aspirin;

or  2. It is not known whether Excedrin is a more effective pain reliever than aspirin;

or  3. There is a real question whether Excedrin is a more effective pain reliever than aspirin.

For inclusion in Bufferin advertising, the disclosure that:

4. Bufferin has not been proven to be a faster pain reliever or gentler to the stomach than aspirin;

or  5. It is not known whether Bufferin is a faster pain reliever or gentler to the stomach than aspirin;

or  6.  There is a real question whether Bufferin is a faster pain reliever or gentler to the stomach than aspirin."

[Fisherow, W. Benjamin. Complaint Counsel's statement concerning corrective advertising for Excedrin and Bufferin. Letter dated January 31, 1979 and sent to Montgomery K. Hyun, Administrative Law Judge. In the matter of: Bristol-Myers Company, Ted Bates and Company, Inc., and Young and Rubicam, Inc. Docket No. 8917, Federal Trade Commission.]

In serving as an expert witness for the defendant, the senior author expressed several opinions regarding these proposed remedial statements. Principal among these was the belief that a substantial number of consumers would either be confused as to their intended meaning, or would extract some non-intended meanings. The investigation described below is a direct outgrowth of this testimony and represents an empirical attempt to confirm (or disconfirm) these opinions.

METHOD

Instrument

Comprehension was assessed via a closed-ended questionnaires. A set of 8 "derived meanings" was generated for each of the six proposed remedial statements. For each such sat, one (or two) of the derivations were judged roughly equivalent in meaning to the corrective statement under consideration; the other six (or seven) derivations were judged to be incorrect. Figure 1 provides an example for one of the six proposed statements. Each of the remedial statements, followed by its set of derivations, constituted a separate page in a questionnaire. The opening instructions requested that the subjects read the statements typed at the top of each page, then check as many or as few of the interpretations as they felt accurately paraphrased the meaning which they had derived. These pages were randomized across statements and respondents. In addition to the set of eight derivations, each page contained a ninth response option for "none of the choices presented above reflect the meaning I get from this statement" and a tenth option for 'I am uncertain as to what the statement actually means and therefore cannot check any of the above meanings as being either correct or incorrect."

FIGURE 1

"EXCEDRIN HAS NOT BEEN PROVEN TO BE A MORE EFFECTIVE PAIN RELIEVER THAN ASPIRIN."

For any given page, an individual's response was scored "correct" if he checked the one accurate derivation in the case of Bufferin, or one of the two or both accurate derivations in the case of Excedrin, and marked no other response options.  An answer was scored "incorrect" either if the individual checked any of the inaccurate derivations on the page and failed to also check an accurate response, or if the individual marked the ninth response option ("None of the choices...").  A response was scored "confused" either if the individual marked a correct derivation as well as one or more incorrect derivations, or if the individual chose the tenth response option ("I am uncertain...").

Samples

Three separate samples were employed. The first consisted of 92 Purdue University undergraduates enrolled in an introductory course on consumer behavior. The second consisted of 281 members of social and fraternal organizations (Breakfast Optimists; Rotary Club; League of Women Voters, and Parent Teachers Association) in Lafayette, Indiana. The third sample consisted of 78 middle-class adult blacks living in south suburban Chicago. All subjects were volunteers and were unaware of the purposes of the investigation.

RESULTS

Table 1 summarizes the results obtained with each of the samples. As can be seen from these data, extracting either an incorrect or confused meaning was much more prevalent than extracting the intended meaning. In other words, despite the considerable amount of thought and well-intentioned effort which underlie the development of these messages, remedial statements have the potential to generate at least as much miscomprehension as the advertising messages they were designed to counteract. However, if one were forced to make a choice from among the three versions proposed, it is clear that the "There is a real question..." version is best understood and least confusing.

TABLE 1

PROPORTION OF RESPONDENTS WHO EXTRACTED CORRECT, INCORRECT, OR CONFUSED MEANINGS FROM THE PROPOSED REMEDIAL STATEMENTS

DISCUSSION

The principal objective of the present investigation was to examine the question: Are corrective advertising or affirmative disclosure statements as subject to being miscomprehended as are the advertising messages they are designed to reedy? From the data obtained, the answer would appear to be a resounding "yes". The six remedial statements proposed by the FTC staff for inclusion in Bufferin and Excedrin advertising appear to be more often associated with confused or incorrect comprehension than with correct comprehension. In other words, the implicit assumption that remedial advertising statements will automatically be accurately comprehended by the public at large seem both unwarranted and untenable.

The difficulty involved in accurately communicating meaning is often underestimated, and regulators would seem to be no exception in this regard. As Rumelhart (1977, p. 102) notes: "Of all the complex tasks the human information system carries out, perhaps the most sophisticated is language processing . . . Only when we stop and analyze the intricate reasoning that appears to underlie even the simplest cases of language comprehension can we begin to appreciate the complexity of the language understanding process."

Given that the receivers of communication messages differ substantially in terms of their past experiences and present "semantic expectations" (see Rumelhart 1977, p. 148), it is not surprising to find substantial levels of miscomprehension. The fact that high levels of miscomprehension were found for remedial statements generated and proposed by the FTC suggests caution in being quick to blame the advertiser when some consumers miscomprehend his message.

It could be argued, of course, that the relatively high rates of confusion obtained (that is, extracting the correct meaning along with some additional, but incorrect meaning) should not be of major concern since they suggest that at least some of the correct meaning was being received. However, consider Cohen's (1974, p. 9) description of the criteria used by the FTC to arrive at a finding of deception in advertising:

On the basis of FTC cues and court interpretations, an advertisement will be considered false, misleading, or deceptive when the following [applies: ]

. . . .

An advertisement that is capable of two meanings, one of which is false, is misleading.

One might therefore reasonably ask: Should not the same criteria apply to remedial statements as well?

Perhaps the most important implication of the present investigation is that, just as is the case for advertising proper, the likely impact of remedial statements needs to be thoroughly researched before such statements are inserted in advertising. Regulatory agencies need to recognize that the language of the remedial statements which they devise may be equally (and in seen cases even more) confusing to the consumer then the advertising message it is designed to correct. It cannot be safely assumed that language decided upon in good faith and with the consumer's best interests at heart will be sufficient for accomplishing its objective. There is no substitute for empirically assessing the perceived meanings of corrective advertising or affirmative disclosure statements before such remedial statements are mandated for use in advertising.

REFERENCES

Cohen, D. (1974), "The concept of unfairness as it relates to advertising legislation." Journal of Marketing, 38, 8-13.

Engel, J. F., Blackwell, R. D., & Kollat, D. T. (1978), Consumer Behavior (3rd ed.), Hinsdale, Illinois: The Dryden Press.

Jacoby, J., Nelson, M. C., & Hoyer, W. D. "Corrective advertising and affirmative disclosure statements: Their potential for confusing and misleading the consumer." Submitted.

Lavidge, R. J. and Steiner, G. A. (1961), "A model of predictive measurements of advertising effectiveness, "Journal of Marketing, 25, 59-62.

McGuire, W. J. (1976), "Internal psychological factors influencing consumer choice." Journal of Consumer Research, 2 (4), 302-319.

Rumelhart, D. E. (1977), Introduction to Human Information Processing, New York.: J. Wiley and Sons.

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