Why might alcohol warning labels not work?

Researchers have cautioned against “indiscriminate and uniformed use of warning messages” (Steward and Martin, 1994, p. 13).  This is in part due to potential boomerang effects that have been found in the literature, for instance Ringold (2002) reviewed potential unintended consequences of warnings and other counter-alcohol measures finding that psychological reactance is a commonly used explanation for unintended effects.  Psychological reactance is a motivational state and occurs as a result of a freedom threat (implicit or explicit) whereby the consumer feels that they need to reassert control.  Rains (2013) reviews literature that has modelled psychological reactance and concluded that reactance is comprised of two components namely anger and counterarguments. Reactance results in behaviour that is counter to the warning message. Since the majority of alcohol warning messages rely on an approach of fear arousal, one potential way to cope with fear is to engage in such defensive processing of the message.


Examples of potential defensive reactions to alcohol warning labels have been found to occur in a number of studies including Andrews et al.’s stream of research exploring believability of alcohol warning messages.  Findings show that participants who had a more favourable attitude towards drinking were less likely to believe warning label messages (Andrews et al., 1990).  Further those who consume alcohol more frequently also found the alcohol warning messages to be less believable (Andrews et al., 1991). In an experimental study with students examining the effectiveness of the USA warning for alerting drinkers to the risks associated with consuming alcohol, Snyder and Blood (1992) found that drinking intentions were stronger for drinkers amongst those exposed to the warning as compared to drinkers that were not. These authors also showed the same pattern of effects for perceiving alcohol products to be beneficial.


Other defensive reactions may occur such as defensive avoidance where individuals suppress thinking about the message or don’t put effort into reading it.  These types of reactions have been known to occur when individuals view anti-alcohol messages (Brown and Locker, 2009).  However one of the problems in literature that examines defensive responses to threatening messages is that researchers have not utilised the same empirical measures for the construct (see Good and Abraham, 2007 for a discussion), as a result findings are not comparable and can be contrary to expectations. Indeed even determining what counts as a defensive reaction isn’t easy and the same reaction of not attending to the message may result from a lack of personal relevancy or believability which may/may not be defensive.  There is a need for consistency in measuring defensive reactions generally in the health persuasion area as well as within alcohol warning label studies.  Further, warning labels studies need to place a greater emphasis on assessing defensive responses including what causes them and what impact they have on important outcomes (risk perceptions, attitudes toward drinking and responsible consumption to name a few). In doing so, attention could be paid to information-processing models such as Blumberg’s (2000) four processes (attention avoidance, blunting, suppression and counter-argumentation). Designing messages and testing them inline with the recommendations of Rucker and Petty (2006) would assist those in the alcohol policy field.


The above effects shouldn’t be looked at in isolation but such boomerang effects highlight the need to comprehensively evaluate potential alcohol warning label policies. Further, alcohol warning labels are only one small part of an effective counter alcohol policy and though their use is supported by researchers additional research is needed to improve their effectiveness (Martin-Moreno et al., 2013).  Examining the possibility of using warnings that engender a positive emotional response could also be undertaken as this approach has been fruitful in other risky consumption contexts (e.g., Lewis et al., 2007).


Andrews, J.C., Netemeyer, R.G., and Durvasula, S. (1990), “Believability and attitudes toward alcohol warning label information: The role of persuasive communications theory,” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 9, 1–15.

Andrews, J.C., Netemeyer, R.G., and Durvasula, S. (1991), “Effects of consumption frequency on believability and attitudes toward alcohol warning labels,” Journal of Consumer Affairs, 25, 323–38.

Blumberg, S. (2000), “Guarding against threatening HIV prevention messages: An information-processing model,” Health Education and Behavior, 27, 780-95.

Brown, S., and Locker, E. (2009), “Defensive responses to an emotive anti-alcohol message,” Psychology & Health, 24, 517-28.

Good, A., and Abraham, C. (2007), “Measuring defensive responses to threatening messages: a meta-analysis of measures,” Health Psychology Review, 1, 208-29.

Lewis, I.M., Watson, B., White, K.M., and Tay, R. (2007), “Promoting public health messages: Should we move beyond fear-evoking appeals in road safety?,” Qualitative Health Research, 17, 61-74.

Martin-Moreno, J.M., Harris, M.E., Berda, J. et al. (2013), “Enhanced labelling on alcoholic drinks: reviewing the evidence to guide alcohol policy,” European Journal of Public Health, 23, 1082–87.

Rains, S.A. (2013), “The nature of psychological reactance revisited: A meta-analytic review,” Human Communication Research, 39, 47–73.

Ringold, D.J. (2002), “Boomerang effects in response to public health interventions: Some unintended consequences in the alcoholic beverage market,” Journal of Consumer Policy, 25, 27–63.

Rucker, D.D., and Petty, R.E. (2006), “Increasing the effectiveness of communications to consumers: Recommendations based on elaboration likelihood and attitude certainty perspectives,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 25, 39–52.

Snyder, L.B., and Blood, D.J. (1992), “Caution: Alcohol advertising and the Surgeon General’s alcohol warnings may have adverse effects on young adults,” Journal of Applied Communication Research, 20, 37–53.

Stewart, D.W., and Martin, I.M. (1994), “Intended and unintended consequences of warning messages: A review and synthesis of empirical research,” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 13, 1–19.