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March 7, 2005


Warnings about false claims often backfire with older consumers

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Telling people, especially older adults, that a consumer claim is false can make them mistakenly remember it as true, say University of Michigan marketing professors.

This tendency to misremember false claims as true—the “illusion of truth” effect—could put the older generation at considerable risk for consumer fraud and advertising scams, they say.

A new study featured in the March issue of the Journal of Consumer Research raises concerns that attempts to correct false and questionable claims about consumer products may actually lead to negative consequences for older adults.

Carolyn Yoon and Norbert Schwarz of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and colleagues Ian Skurnik of the University of Toronto and Denise Park of the University of Illinois found that the more often older adults were told a given claim was false, the more likely they were to incorrectly remember it as true after several days had passed“especially when the warning pertained to a claim with which they were already familiar.

“Suppose an advertising campaign promises that taking a certain herbal supplement reduces people's arthritis pains,” said Yoon, U-M assistant professor of marketing. “When there is no evidence for such beneficial effects, a typical warning would tell consumers, ‘It is not true that taking the supplement will reduce your arthritis pains.’”

But by repeating the claim in the warning, it may actually serve to reinforce the older consumer’s impression that the product works.

“Unfortunately, this repetition has an unintended consequence—it makes the claim seem more familiar when consumers hear it again,” Yoon said. “Once their memory for the details of the warning fades, all that may be left is an increased feeling of familiarity when consumers later see the misleading claim in an advertisement.”

The researchers tested how age and time-delay interact with repetition to lead to a greater likelihood of misremembering false statements as true. They exposed 32 younger adults, ages 18-25, and 32 older adults, ages 71-86, one time or three times to claims that were explicitly labeled either false or true.

After three days, older adults misremembered 28 percent of false statements as true when they were told only once that the statement was false. However, they misremembered 40 percent of the false statements as true when they were told three times that the statement was false.

In general, familiar statements are more likely to be accepted as true than unfamiliar ones—if we hear it often, there may be something to it, the researchers say. Hence, repeated warnings can backfire—the more often consumers are told that a product claim is false, the more likely they are later on to accept it as true, once the details of the warning are forgotten. This is particularly likely for older adults.

“Detailed memory for the warning fades more quickly for older adults than it does for younger adults,” Yoon said. “Once the contextual details about the claim’s validity are lost, the remaining feeling of familiarity fosters the acceptance of false claims as true, rendering older adults particularly susceptible to this bias.”

In essence, it appears people become increasingly susceptible to the illusion of truth as they age because they experience declines in memory for the context or source of information, but not for familiarity with it, the researchers say.

This has important public policy implications for protecting elderly consumers, they say.

“Consumers’ possible exposure to health claims and rumors whose truth they cannot initially assess is a grave concern,” said Schwarz, U-M professor of marketing and psychology. “Unfortunately, our research suggests that warnings that repeat the false claims can turn into unintended recommendations. Whenever possible, education campaigns should focus on what is true and avoid reiterating what is false. In addition, it may be useful to provide people, particularly older adults, with written materials or visual imagery to supplement or improve memory.”

Related links:

Carolyn Yoon

Norbert Schwarz


Contact: Bernie DeGroat
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