Antitrust in Product Claims

Admit it: You’re a consumer. Most everyone is. And regardless of what some may think, few consumers are experts at everything. We (mostly) trust someone else to know what we don’t. I’d much rather you formulate cosmetic products and doctors diagnose my ailments. But as an editor, I’ll write and edit my own paper.

Now, take this trust into the commercial market. As a consumer, I read a product label and believe what’s printed on it is true. If it claims it will moisturize my skin, I think it will. If it says it’s not tested on animals, I assume this to be true. That’s because I know I’m not the expert—I trust that you and your product development and marketing colleagues are.

Skepticism Runs Rampant

On the other hand, consumers are smart and know businesses must make money. This builds skepticism. Do products do what they claim to, or are claims exaggerated to make a sale? Some will argue it’s all about the money, so regardless of safety or efficacy efforts, no amount of proof will do. How do you earn their trust?

First, realize in some cases you can’t. There’s a spectrum to this belief/trust system. At one extreme end is total distrust, where alarmist groups who have strong beliefs may cite whatever junk science explanation they can to support their case—but they’re not alone at this end. Ill or misguided and unethical companies do the same thing, making hyped claims based on junk science and manipulated data, which perpetuates a vicious cycle.

While I believe these scenarios are the exception rather than the norm, human nature tends to defend itself. How many of you take what read or hear “with a “grain of salt?” So there’s room to build trust with consumers. In fact, one U.S. consumer survey* by YouGov from 2014 showed that diet, cosmetic and beauty, and environmentally friendly product ads were considered by respondents to be the least trustworthy.

The survey asked: “Thinking about the advertisements you have seen for the following products or services, which do you feel are the MOST trustworthy?” It clarified this to mean which are most likely to reflect the true features and capabilities of the product being sold; respondents could three answers.

Just 2% believed diet product ads were truthful, and only 5% trusted cosmetic/beauty product or environmentally friendly ads. The best response was at 25% for casual dining advertisements. Interestingly, 32% of respondents felt none of the ads for any industry were trustworthy. If that doesn’t spell mistrust, I don’t know what does.

Trust in Strangers

A different online study by Nielsen surveyed more than 30,000 consumers worldwide in 2015 to see which advertising formats they found most trustworthy. At 83%, consumers rated recommendations from people they know the highest.

Branded websites came in second at 70%, and consumer opinions posted online tied for third with editorial content, such as newspaper articles about the product, both at 66%. Consumer trust in all other formats fell below 65%. This means that besides a product’s own branded website, the opinions of acquaintances, colleagues, friends and complete strangers about a product were more trusted than paid ads.

Give to Get

So, back to: How can we earn consumers’ trust? I think it starts with trusting them. I know that’s scary; but hear me out. Give them real data and real facts. Be transparent and don’t sugar coat or embellish. Trust they are smart enough to understand, or educate to help them understand. This will give them realistic expectations about the products our industry creates. Truth in claims testing is a perfect example, as Theresa Callaghan’s article explains.

This also means taking the responsibility to step up when mistruths are spread. It’s not just calling out activist groups who make it tough to sell products for the ingredients they contain. It’s about holding each other accountable when things get reformulated for misleading reasons, or label claims about omitted ingredients create negative impressions of them.

While these tactics have successfully set certain brands apart, just look at what it’s cost the entire industry—and think how much greater impact a unified truth could have.

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