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Consumer information

We should not monopolise consumer information

Unsplash Creative 0.0: Photo by PAuline Bernfeld

Letting legislators alone decide what consumer information is pertinent causes multiple problems...

Expanding consumer access to information is meant to be a cornerstone of informed policy and decision-making. 

Rather than adopting paternalistic rules, lawmakers and regulators in liberal democracies should reflect the will of the people and ensure that consumers and citizens are able to always access more, not less, information on labels and products. 

Obviously, distinguishing what information is “accurate”, especially when it comes to products we buy and sell, is a canard. Let’s look to health and warning labels. Mandated by governments, these serve a distinct purpose: they inform consumers about the dangers of consumption – or of overconsumption – of certain products. 

For instance, for alcohol, the industry has long implemented health warnings for pregnant women. This has been done voluntarily and in a self-regulating manner. Initiatives such as these demonstrate that private industry possesses an instinct towards corporate responsibility, and they should be encouraged to inform consumers on similar health challenges in a variety of ways. 

We believe that more can be done to allow consumers to seek information online. The marked increase in supermarket goers scanning food items, whether it is a bottle of wine or a box of rice, has shown there is a desire to be better informed and conscious about the things we consume. That’s a great development.

When it comes to regulation on this information, we should encourage an approach that avoids overburdening the administrative state with challenges it cannot overcome or solve.

Many legislative proposals on what information must be provided to consumers are laboriously updated and concocted and can have unintended consequences. For instance, while the food pyramid was once a standard model in school curricula for decades, it is now recognised to have been entirely inaccurate in its advocacy for a healthy diet. 

We see a similar problem with mandatory labelling suggestions such as the "Nutri-Score", which lays out the nutritional value of a product, without necessarily promoting healthy products. The green-to-red scale of the Nutri-Score misleads consumers by signalling that highly nutritious food is automatically healthy food. The same goes for over-labelling. Consumers’ attention should be on the most important aspects and qualities of a product rather than an arbitrary score that simplifies nutritional science. An inflation of health and warning labels could diverge attention of consumers away from the key take-aways of health advice, and lead them to ignore them all together.

When it comes to labelling, public health advocates insist that a plethora of studies prove the effectiveness of specifically pictorial health warnings. But is this true? This assumes that the warning is already being looked at, which is not self-evident. Just as in the case of medicine, for a drug to be effective, it seems obvious that the patient will have to take it in the first place. Take the example of this 2018 study, which examined the amount of respondents who were actually aware of the warning labels for alcohol.

“Eye-tracking identified that 60% of participants looked at the current in-market alcohol warning label […]. The current study casts doubt on dominant practices (largely self-report), which have been used to evaluate alcohol warning labels. Awareness cannot be used to assess warning label effectiveness in isolation in cases where attention does not occur 100% of the time.”

These are people who purchased the product, and were actually not aware of what the warning label said or indicated. But how can that be? How is it possible that people ignore the warning label that has been specifically designed to catch their attention and change or modify their behaviour?

The WHO working document “Alcohol labelling A discussion document on policy options” portends the necessity of “good design” when it comes to warning labels.

“There are four message components that may be considered when developing an effective health label, each serving a different purpose: (i) signal word to attract attention; (ii) identification of the problem; (iii) explanation of the consequences if exposed to the problem; and (iv) instructions for avoiding the problem. The visual impact of the label can be enhanced by using large, bold print; high contrast; colour; borders; and pictorial symbols.”

But bad design alone cannot be the only explanation for decreased awareness among consumers. Take the example of safety instructions on aeroplanes. Frequent flyers know that after 2 flights a week or more, these warnings and indications about the location of life jackets become background noise. An inflation of warning labels can desensitise those who are meant to be aware of them, because of a lack of nuance. The messages “coffee can be bad for your health” and “smoking can be bad for your health” don’t frame a hierarchy of health hazards. In fact, put next to each other, both messages could imply that both are equally damaging and to be avoided. We know that’s not the case.

More than anything, we should not try to make health warnings trivial and overstated. If they become less meaningful to consumers, we run the risk that important health warnings will be ignored by the average consumer. As such, information provided to consumers should never be monopolised by governments alone. Rather, we should allow different brands and products to provide accurate information where necessary, for the consumers’ sake.

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