McDonough School of Business
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Office Hours: Anita Rao on Debunking Misinformation About Consumer Products

With social media at the touch of our fingertips, information sharing has never been easier. While some information is used to inform, persuade, and engage audiences with fact-based and highly vetted pieces of evidence, sometimes, misinformation makes its way into our digital world.

In her recent research, Debunking Misinformation About Consumer Products: Effects on Beliefs and Purchase Behavior, Anita Rao, associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, examines how consumer behavior is impacted by misinformation and when and how debunking false claims can work.

Why were you interested in exploring misinformation as it relates to consumer behavior?

There is a lot of misinformation out there, and there are so many products that are making wrong claims. For example, there was a deodorant company that was fairly new to the market and it claimed that aluminum in deodorants is toxic to the body. 

In reality, aluminum is a common active ingredient in deodorant that helps prevent sweat buildup. So, while this company is saying that aluminum is toxic, it is not scientifically proven. A lot of my research has looked at the impact of false claims on consumer behavior. In this research we wanted to explore whether consumers would change their behaviors if there was proof that certain advertisement claims weren’t actually scientifically proven. 

What was your research process?

Initially, we identified product categories where there are firms making misleading claims in the marketplace. We narrowed down our focus to three categories – deodorants, toothpastes and nutritional shakes.  For example, in the toothpaste category fluoride is an active ingredient that dentists recommend. However, some brands have claimed that fluoride-free toothpaste is better for consumers despite a lack of scientific backing. In deodorants, it was aluminum and in nutritional shakes it was the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) content, as some brands have stated that GMO-free shakes have more health benefits.

Once we identified these categories, our research shifted towards understanding consumer response to misinformation and debunking. We ran a survey that exposed consumers to different advertising messages (specifically one group of consumers saw an advertisement featuring misinformation, and another group saw a regular ad with no misinformation). 

Then, we aimed to understand whether exposure to debunking messages influenced the consumer’s choices. We exposed them to different stimuli from diverse sources – the regulator, a competitor and the media –  to analyze if they showcased different behavioral responses.

The respondents then made  choices among products that featured varying product attributes. This format allowed us to analyze consumers’ willingness to choose products based on their ingredient makeup. 

We also assessed consumer beliefs about ingredients, such as fluoride, both before and after the experiment to measure potential shifts in not just their purchase behaviors but also their beliefs. 

What were the key takeaways from the research? 

The key takeaway is that misinformation does have an impact on consumer behavior. Once someone is exposed to an ad that says, for example, that fluoride can be toxic, their willingness to pay for the product will drop. This is cause for concern because these types of messages can change how people think about active ingredients. 

The good news is that once they’re exposed to debunking, especially when it comes from a credible source like the government, there seems to be a positive impact. People are willing to learn from this information and change their beliefs.

The second takeaway is that it can be beneficial for incumbents to just introduce an ingredient-free product conforming to misinformation, rather than debunk it. We ran simulations to determine whether it makes sense for a competitor to actively debunk misinformation, and find that this strategy is not the most profitable. Rather it’s more profitable to conform to the misinformation and do exactly what the new entrants are doing – enable false claims.

Instead of debunking claims, competitors can introduce a new product that is aluminum-free and say, ‘Hey, we’re just responding to consumers.’ A lot of companies are taking this approach and introducing products that are fluoride-free,  GMO-free, or aluminum-free. So what started as misinformation by one small entrant is now being picked up by these other existing brands as well.

That is worrisome because by bringing in aluminum-free deodorants or fluoride-free toothpastes, consumers might think they should not be buying products with these ingredients. Not only is it misinformation but they are also paying more for these kinds of products. So ultimately, the only solution is for a regulator or a third party to come in and provide this information credibly to consumers.

What are the main aspects of misinformation in consumer behavior that are largely misunderstood? 

There’s an element of trust that consumers implicitly place in brands, but just because a brand is saying something doesn’t mean it’s true.

There’s a need for skepticism when brands assert statements. For example, when a brand says it offers “the best potato chip in the world,” consumers understand it is not technically the best. However, when a company asserts that “aluminum is harmful,” it might seem fairly reasonable to believe.  

It’s crucial to promote greater education and transparency from credible sources like regulatory bodies to ensure consumers have access to accurate information. 

How do you hope your research influences consumer behavior when it comes to decision-making or buying?

To the extent that companies are making false claims, consumers should be aware that this does happen and that advertising messages should be approached with an element of skepticism.

Additionally, there is a tendency to believe whatever is out there on social media, be it from an influencer or a brand. Consumers should go to a .gov site on the web to verify this information before making a decision, especially if it’s something that could harm you or if it’s something that you’re spending money on.