Should product warnings contain signal words or qualifiers?
Signal words (e.g., government warning) and qualifiers (e.g., may cause) are often inherent in the design of warnings yet literature findings are sparce on their effect on how messages are processed, as well as their effect on attitudinal and behavioural outcomes (see Hassan and Shiu, 2018 for a review). To help address this literature gap, researchers at Bangor Business School conducted two studies to address the question: Does the use of signal words and qualifiers influence how the message is perceived and its likelihood of engendering low-risk alcohol consumption? Their research focuses on alcohol warnings as according to the World Health Organization (2017), alcohol warning labels provide a ‘unique opportunity for governments to disseminate health messages at the point of sale and point of consumption’. Globally, there is a call for the use of signal words (WHO, 2017), but there remains a need to understand more clearly their benefits and limitations.
Focus groups were undertaken with a sample of the UK student population and semi-structured interviews were conducted with a sample of the UK general population. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken on a diverse age range of UK respondents (aged 24–62) to assess the potential for the findings to apply to different age groups and segments. Students represent an important target group for responsible drinking messages as a recent National Union of Students survey found 30% of UK students drank alcohol to get drunk at least once a week with over 80% of students agreeing that drinking and getting drunk is part of university culture (National Union of Students, 2019). Respondents were shown a variety of alcohol warnings that contained images as well as text which varied in terms of style (e.g., using statistics, question formats, testimonials, recommendations included or not). The warning also covered diverse message themes (e.g., more self and health focused, more focused on social consequences that might harm the self or others).
We used signal words as part of the message statement and as part of the recommendations provided, with results showing neither placement for the signal words to be effective. We also explored different types of signals (e.g., government, charities) but also did not find a difference in efficacy. Our results also suggest that the incorporation of statistics into warning messages without qualifiers can be more effective. Respondents were looking for certainty and found the use of qualifiers less persuasive, as respondents perceive the outcomes from excessive drinking debatable.
In designing warnings, the use of qualifiers or signal words is not needed and means that the text statement can be kept shorter. We would therefore suggest that the WHO reconsider their recommendation to incorporate signal words in warnings.
Publication date: 9 June 2021