4 factors to evaluate the potential impact of a health claim

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

4 factors to evaluate the potential impact of a health claim

Related tags: Health care, Nutrition

Positive health claims, such as those touting the benefits of a food, diet or quality, more effectively motivate the general public than negative or fear-based claims that attempt to scare people into action, according to a recently published study in Nutrition Review. 

However, health claims focused on negative consequences more effectively influence highly-educated people, such as health care providers, or people invested in a specific topic, such as dedicated dieters, according to the researchers Brain Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and Lizzy Pope, associate professor and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at the University of Vermont.

“Message framing is one of the most researched, yet least conclusively understood, phenomenon in health communication”​ with positive or “gain-framed”​ messages working well sometimes and negative “loss-based”​ claims working better at other times, they note in the study.

Being able to accurately predict the best way to frame health claims can make or break a marketing campaign for food or beverage trying to tap into the wellness trend that is heavily influencing consumers’ purchases currently.

Wansink and Pope suggest marketers and public health advocates can predict whether a positive- or gain-framed claim or a negative- or loss-based message will be more effective by considering their target audience and tailoring claims based on four factors:

  • How involved the target audience is in an issue​ – The more knowledgeable the target audience is of a message, the more likely it will respond to negative, loss-based messages. The researchers explain that people highly-educated on a topic “have the specific knowledge to enable them to respond to fear-based, negative messages.”​ In contrast, people who are not well-versed in a topic will not fully understand and know how to act on fear-based messages. This group responds better to positive messages that communicate a clear actionable step and leave them with a “positive feeling and a motivated attitude ,”​ according to the study. For example, the positive claim “Eating broccoli will help your skin look younger”​ provides a clear action and motivation that does not require specific health knowledge, the study notes. On the other hand, the claim “You will prematurely age if you don’t eat broccoli,”​ requires consumers to know that premature aging does not correlate to the number of years lived, but rather to the quality and upkeep of a body’s systems. 
  • The certainty of a claim’s outcome ​– The more likely a consumer perceives a claim to be true, the more likely she will act on a positive gain-framed message. However, if a consumer is unsure whether a claim is true, a more negative, threatening angle may be more effective.  For example, if a person believes that eating carrots will help him see in the dark, the more likely he will respond to positive claims suggesting the benefit. But if a person is skeptical of the veracity of a claim, a more effective message might be: Insufficient levels of lutein, found in carrots, can lead to poor vision. 
  • How risk-adverse the consumer is​ – “People act in a risk-averse fashion when positive gains are salient or certain, and … they act in a risk-seeking fashion when losses are salient or certain. Therefore, when a positive outcome is certain, gain-framed messaging is predicted to be more effective, whereas when loss is perceived to be certain, loss-framed messaging is proposed to be more impactful,”​ according to the researchers. For example, eating fruits and vegetables is risk-adverse in that it is viewed as a way to reduce the risk of obesity and diseases linked to certain nutrient deficiencies. A study that the researchers reviewed found that positive messaging encouraging increased consumption for health benefits from fruits and vegetables was more effective than threats that failure to do so would result in negative health consequences. 
  • Whether the consumer understands only the big picture or is more detail-oriented​ – Consumers who want to deliberate over the nitty-gritty details of a decision are likely to respond to negative claims because they are more likely to do the research and self-education necessary to understand their options in responding to a claim. However, the general population is less interested in the details and most people think in terms of the big picture. Because these people are not focused on the details of a health message, they are more likely to be swayed by superficial features and therefore respond better to positive advertising and claims, according to the study. 

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