Factors to consider in the design of alcohol warning labels

It goes without saying that prominent placement is key to the noticeability of warnings.  But there are many other factors to consider when designing the warning label. The findings reported here are specific to alcohol warning label research. The following sections summarise current insight from academic research on the issues of layout and placement, use of colour, qualifiers, and signal words. Details on the design of the message are on a separate page.


Layout and placement

Alcohol warnings should be place on the front of the bottle/can and be positioned horizontally rather than vertically.  It is important that the warning labels are not surrounded by clutter and thus the warning label should be isolated from other information provided.  Borders do not add to the effectiveness of the warning. (see Laughery et al., 1993 for a discussion of these issues).


Use of colour

Colour is important in helping labels to stand out with red being preferable to black in achieving a faster response time (Laughery et al., 1993).


Use of qualifiers

Use of terms such as ‘may cause cancer’ has been associated with less avoidance of the message (MacKinnon et al., 1994).  However a recent study comparing warnings with the wording ‘increases risk’ versus ‘can cause’ found that the ‘increases risk’ wording was more convincing across gender, and more believable for females, than the ‘can cause’ wording (Pettigrew et al., 2014).


Signal word(s) / Source effect

Thomson et al. (2012) undertook six focus groups predominantly with young people (two also with parents of teenagers aged 15 – 18) and found that participants were more likely to accept the message if “Health Warning” rather than “Warning” or “Government Health Warning” was used. However, prior experimental evidence (Wogalter et al. 1999) that compared the use of various sources of signal on consumers' perception of credibility and likelihood of compliance found that signals with a specific source (e.g., from medical/health bodies or government) were more credible (and likely to be complied with) than using the signal of “Warning” or “Health Warning”.


For a more general review on the design of warning labels see Wogalter et al. (2002).


Laughery, K.R., Young, S.L, Vaubel, K.P., and Brelsford Jr., J.W. (1993), “The noticeability of warnings on alcoholic beverage containers,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 12, 38-56.

MacKinnon, D.P., Nemeroffa, C., and Nohre, L. (1994), “Avoidance responses to alternative alcohol warning labels,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 733-53.

Pettigrew, S., Jongenelis, M., Chikritzhs, T., et al. (2014), “Developing cancer warning statements for alcoholic beverages,” BMC Public Health, 14, 786

Thomson, L.M., Vandenberg, B., and Fitzgerald, J.L. (2012), “An exploratory study of drinkers views of health information and warning labels on alcohol containers,” Drug and Alcohol Review, 31, 240–47.

Wogalter, M.S., Kalsher, M.J., Rashid, R. (1999), “Effect of signal word and source attribution on judgments of warning credibility and compliance likelihood,” International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 24, 185–92.

Wogalter, M.S., Conzolaa, V.C., Smith-Jackson, T.L. (2002), “Research-based guidelines for warning design and evaluation,” Applied Ergonomics, 33, 219–30.