How important are small words in big food scare communications?

When a food scare such as the BSE crisis or the horsemeat scandal arises, consumers tend to derive almost all their information about the case from media coverage.

This raises a question - how much can media representations of information affect consumers' risk perceptions and behaviour. Previous research has found that media stories are more likely to highlight the negative aspects of food safety issues and in doing so they can stimulate fear and anxiety in their audience. We also know that reactions are different when numerical information is used to keep the information objectively equivalent (e.g., 25% fat versus 75% fat free), but what if the wording of the media message is modified so as to make the outcome seem better or worse. For example the potential scare may be minimised if 'only' or 'as few as' is used to describe the number of people affected, whereas the use of 'already' or 'as many as' may maximise consumer anxiety.

This study presented consumers with food consumption scenarios and recorded the risk they perceived and tolerated in response to varying messages in news-type stories. Our research suggests that positively-worded messages lead to lower overall perceived risk compared to neutral messages for both of the two food products studied; while the opposite was the case for negatively worded messages. In the example of corn cereals, only 2% of respondents reported that a risk of illness was likely or very likely in response to a positively worded message, compared with 6% for the neutral message and 32% for the negatively worded message.

How consumers handle risk information and how their perceptions can be altered by media messages has implications for food manufacturers, retailers and food agencies. Since crises can feed on a lack of information, one of the most important aspects of food crisis management is effective communication. The findings of this research suggest that media communications can serve to increase subjective risk evaluations, which in turn might affect purchasing behaviour. We speculated that in reality, the ambiguity and uncertainty that characterise crisis situations would magnify this effect. Therefore, companies should consider presenting facts about a crisis in a favourable light in order to decrease these risk evaluations and increase participants' willingness to accept risk in their purchases.

A working paper version of the research is available for download at the link below.

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