Do Warning Labels Really Work?

Jennifer J. Argo, University of Alberta
Kelley J. Main, York University

Overview of Research

Over the past decade, a growing number of companies have included warning labels on their products or packaging due in part to changing government regulations, product liability lawsuits, and concerns for public safety. Given the potential consequences for consumer harm, it is important that we are aware of whether and when warning labels are successful in informing consumers about product hazards. Unfortunately, previous research on warning labels has not demonstrated a consistent pattern of effects. While some researchers have revealed that warning labels are effective, others have questioned the ability of the labels to adequately warn consumers.

What Do We Mean By Effective?

Research on the effectiveness of warning labels has used a variety of different measures to try and understand the effectiveness of warning labels in conveying hazardous information to consumers. We have combined those various measures into five overall dimensions of effectiveness which include: attention, reading/comprehension, recall, judgments and behavioural compliance. Attention is the first dimension of effectiveness. It assesses whether consumers notice or see a warning label that appears on a product. Once the warning label has attracted consumers’ attention, the next question is whether or not they proceed to read/understand its information. Then, consumers must be able to remember the information presented in the warning label. Next, warning labels need to influence consumer judgments concerning their perceptions of how hazardous and dangerous a product really is. Finally, a warning label is effective if it successfully influences consumer to engage in behaviors that comply with the safety precautions conveyed in the label.

What Factors Influence Effectiveness?

Across the literature on warning labels, researchers have identified a number of factors that influence effectiveness. In our research, we examined three categories of factors including characteristics of the warning label, the consumer, and the product. Commonly studied warning label characteristics include font, size, color, s p a c i n g , the degree of details, symbols (e.g. a picture of a skull and crossbones), and location. In our research, we also examined two consumer characteristics: familiarity with the product, and the age of the consumer. Finally, we were interested in the influence of product characteristics on the effectiveness of warning labels. We examined the type of product and the cost of compliance (i.e. the degree to which the required behaviors were easy or hard to do).

Overview of Findings

We used meta-analysis to answer these questions. Meta-analysis is a tool for empirically summarizing research findings to look for trends across a field of research. We conducted five separate meta-analysis, one for each dimension of warning label effectiveness. The first meta-analysis indicated that warning labels are effective in attracting consumers’ attention. In addition, we find that when warning labels include certain characteristics such as color or symbols, the likelihood of noticing the label is further increased. The second and third meta-analyses showed that while consumers did read/understand and remember warning label information, these rates were quite low. One limitation of the analyses on reading/comprehension and recall was the small number of studies that have previously investigated the impact of warning labels on these variables. As such, we were unable to identify factors that influenced these dimensions of effectiveness.

The fourth meta-analysis for judgments found that warning labels were not effective in influencing consumers’ perceptions of hazards and risks. Further, in those cases where consumers do perceive hazards with a product, these perceptions are more likely to be associated with products that are purchased less frequently (e.g., appliances) as opposed to products purchased more often (e.g., cigarettes). For the fifth and final meta-analysis, results indicate that warning labels do appear to positively influence consumer behavior. The tendency to comply with the warning label was highest when the cost of doing so (i.e., how difficult it would be) was low. Consumers were also more willing to comply when they were familiar with a product, than when they were unfamiliar with it.

Implications for Public Policy

It is essential that researchers continue to strive to understand what makes an effective warning label and to determine the appropriate criteria to assess that effectiveness. A great deal of attention has been devoted to behavioral compliance as the ultimate test of warning label effectiveness; however, one could argue that the other dimensions such as attention, recall, or judgment are of equal importance depending on the purpose of the label. Some warnings are designed to convey information about a product’s potential risks, and as long as consumers understand the risks that are involved, the choice of behavior is ultimately up to them. In addition, if consumers are able to accurately recall the dangers associated with the consumption of a particular product, but choose not to follow them, the warning label has still effectively served its purpose.

Policymakers must make difficult choices and balance conflicting interests when deciding a course of action that can adequately protect the public from harmful products, without driving a potentially useful product out of the market. This research demonstrated that warnings influence some of the aspects of effectiveness (i.e., attention, reading/comprehension, recall, and behavioral compliance) more than others (i.e., judgments). Overall, this suggests that although previous research efforts have shed some light on the effectiveness of warning labels, the ideal combination of factors that create the most effective warning label has yet to be identified.

Article Reference

Argo, Jennifer J. and Kelley J. Main (2004), “Meta-Analyses of the Effectiveness of Warning Labels,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 23(2), 193-208.