Written by DECIPHer Research Fellow, Dr Rachel Brown
A recent paper by Maynard et al. (2017) describes the findings from a study where undergraduate student drinkers were provided with calorie and unit information through alcohol product labels. The research found no reduction in alcohol consumption among participants, echoing similar findings from the US (Hawley et al. 2013) and Australia (Miller et al. 2016). Despite little to suggest that alcohol labelling interventions impact drinking behaviour, multiple studies show high levels of support among consumers for additional information on alcohol labels, including calorie content, health warnings (Thomas et al. 2014; Parackal, Parackal and Harraway 2010), and cancer-related messaging (Miller et al. 2016). Labelling information is also popular among both public health policy makers and industry bodies, as seen in the then-coalition UK Government ‘Public Health Responsibility Deal’ and in the Portman Group ‘Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks’ (2011). These measures have been publically hailed as a success:
Our Responsibility Deal has made real progress, as the industry is taking one billion units out of the market and has agreed to provide labelling which includes health warnings and unit information. The new pledges will help people to drink responsibly and make healthier choices.” – Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health
So why might a measure that seemingly has very little impact on people’s drinking be so supported as a public health intervention, both by the public and by policy makers? (We’ll leave the industry question for another day…). It’s my view that one possible explanation for this is the third person effect.
The Third-Person Effect (Davison, 1983) originates in the field of communication research and states that people tend to believe that others are more impacted by mass media communications than they are themselves, with people more likely to cite personal experience as influential in their own choices (Johansson, 2005). In short, we like to believe that others are more gullible than we are! Findings of this effect have been replicated in studies across multiple population groups in many countries but, so far, discussion of the implications for mass public health communications, has been limited.
In relation to alcohol labelling, I wonder if the third-person effect may be a consideration when assessing high rates of approval for this type of mass-communication intervention. Are people’s responses guided by a belief that this type of public health intervention might be influential on the behaviour of other people rather than themselves? When designing and carrying out research in this area, it may be important to consider question phrasing when assessing public responses to proposed labelling messages. Comparing public views when we specifically ask ‘what would influence you’ as opposed to ‘do you like this message’, may illustrate whether the third-person-effect is occurring. Given strong policy support for labelling communications, better understanding of potential barriers to effectiveness would help to inform future directions for this type of intervention.
Davison, W. P. (1983). The Third-Person Effect in Communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47 (1), pp. 1–15, https://doi.org/10.1086/268763
Hawley, K.L., Roberto, C.A., Bragg, M.A., Liu, P.J., Schwartz, M.B., Brownell, K.D. (2013) The science on front-of-package food labels. Public Health Nutrition 16 (3) pp. 430-439.
Maynard, O.M., Langfield, T., Attwood, A.S., Allen, E., Drew, I., Votier, A., Munafo, M. (2017) No Impact of Calorie or Unit Information on Ad Libitum Alcohol Consumption. Alcohol and Alcoholism, https://doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/agx066
Miller, E.R., Ramsey, I.J., Baratiny, G.Y., Olver, I.N. (2016). Message on a bottle: are alcohol warning labels about cancer appropriate? BMC Public Health. 16 (1), pp. 3-9
Johansson, B. (2005) The Third-Person Effect: Only a Media Perception? Nordicom Review. 26 (1), pp. 81-94
Portman Group (2011) Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks’. At: http://www.portmangroup.org.uk/responsibility-programmes/landing_page/responsibility-deal