Defining and conceptualizing product literacy.I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot.
(Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye).
"Literacy" is a word that has been applied across many domains: "digital literacy" (Gilster 1997), "information literacy" (Zurkowski 1974) and "music literacy" (Freeman and Neidt 1959), among many others. This concept has come to include contexts that are directly related to the consumer interest (Bone, France, and Aikin 2009; Cude 2010; Langenderfer and Miyazaki 2009; Royne and Levy 2011), through a general desire among policymakers that consumers "understand" some type of information in such a way that desirable (usually behavioral) outcomes are achieved. The concept of product literacy merits attention because it has economic, social and individual significance.
The consequences of product illiteracy can manifest in the very short term; for example, a combination of manufacturer deceptions and consumer misunderstandings arguably caused the consumer misuse of powdered infant formula in developing countries, leading to immediate and tragic outcomes (Finkle 1994). The outcomes of continued product illiteracy may also be revealed over a much longer time period. For example, the "calorie" has been used for well over a century as one measure of the energy content of food products (Hargrove 2006), yet consumers still apparently cannot or do not use the basic information about it to make decisions (Dietary Guidelines Alliance 2010; Elbel 2011) or understand that caloric intake can be associated with health-related problems (Chandon and Wansink 2007).
Additionally, product literacy has a shelf life. Consumers' use of what may be current information can be confounded by new information--often it is only as products are used by large segments of consumers that deficiencies and dangers become apparent. Terfenadine was the first "no drowsiness" antihistamine, introduced in the 1980s. The branded version of the drug was one of the first prescription drugs advertised directly to consumers, until broad adoption of the drug produced evidence of potentially fatal heart-related side effects. Warning information was widely disseminated to physicians (Nightingale 1992), but eventually the drug was withdrawn from the US market in 1995. Similarly, research and consumer experience have continued to encounter unfavorable "outcomes" of the consumption of specific products, resulting in calls for more emphatic consumer-directed warnings for commonly consumed products such as tanning beds (Food and Drug Administration 2008), hot dogs (American Academy of Pediatrics 2010; Dickinson 2009) and soft drinks (Center for Science in the Public Interest 2011). The addition of new information to existing knowledge makes it difficult for even literate consumers to keep abreast of what's good, what's bad, how much or whether.
Some consumer-interest analyses have attempted to optimize the information provided to consumers (e.g., Kemp and Kopp 2011; Zank and Kemp 2012), under the assumption that providing the right amount of the right words about a product will persuade a change in behavior. Others have suggested that there are limits to the effectiveness of providing more and more information (Keller and Staelin 1987; Rotfeld 2009). Results of published studies suggest that product literacy is highly contextual--it depends on the product, on the information provided and on many individual consumer characteristics. Thus, it is not surprising that in practice and in research, "product literacy" outcomes vary. What is uniformly addressed across contexts, however, is the need for theoretical and conceptual frameworks to guide understanding for policymakers as well as researchers.
EFFORTS TO IMPROVE PRODUCT LITERACY
Product literacy is a key ability in a consumption-driven society, composed of a fundamental set of skills and knowledge, needed to make "satisfying" individual purchase choices but also to influence general health, economy and societal well-being. Considerable effort has been invested in promoting those skills.
In health care, for example, information that is directed to patients often comes in print form and the desirable outcome is the patient's adherence to a prescription drug regimen. For decades, consumer researchers in this product category have examined the mismatch among print materials, patient's reading abilities, comprehension and prescription drug-taking behaviors (Kirkpatrick and Mohler 1999; Morris 1984; Wolf et al. 2010). Evidence has suggested that people with lower-level reading skills cannot understand and act on drug labeling information, leading to a "plain language" movement focusing on the analysis and simplification of language used in advertisements, labels and other consumer-directed communications. This exemplifies product literacy efforts across other consumer contexts--in most cases, regulators either presume to "educate" consumers by providing "more information" or attempt to simplify the existing information to a level that consumers can understand (sometimes to the point of distilling very complex information into a symbol, picture or a few digits: the Energy Star for energy-efficient appliances, the Traffic Light System used in the UK for front-of-package nutritional labeling or consumer credit scores).
Aligning the complexity/simplicity of reading materials with consumers' reading literacy levels is important but not sufficient in attaining results. Very often, product labeling or other information must be supplemented with other efforts. Over the course of the past sixty years, the proportion of cigarette smokers in the United States has decreased from over 40% of the population to about one-fifth (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2011). However, even though results of studies identified tobacco as a health hazard in the popular press in the 1950s, the change in aggregate consumer behavior has been a result of a combination of more specific product warning information, stiff retail price increases, severe restriction of availability and broad reductions in promotional activities. Clearly, simple provisions of warning information are not adequate to reduce consumption of some products (Capella, Taylor, and Kees 2012), encourage beneficial consumption of other products (Zank and Kemp 2012) or allow consumers to withdraw from some markets (Garrison et al. 2012; Labrecque et al. 2012).
Information supplemented with direct enforcement has also resulted in successful behavioral change. With the objective of encouraging consumption, it is compulsory in all states that people in a moving automobile wear seat belts. There is very little flexibility in the consumer's decision to use this product, as governmental safety efforts have evolved from persuasion to mandate--"click it or ticket." The message is simple, and arguably effective, in that over the course of several decades more people began to wear their seat belts (Carpenter and Stehr 2008; Lange and Voas 1998; Tison and Williams 2010). As another example, a growing number of states now require consumers to install carbon monoxide (CO) detectors in new homes. Educational campaigns may offer information about how CO may seep into a home through some heating appliances or the number of deaths or emergency room visits that result each year from unintentional CO exposure (Schwartz et al. 2010). These may or may not influence the consumer's decision, but state laws compel the inclusion of CO detectors among those products that go into a new house. For these products, the normative assessment of the degree to which a consumer "understands" why she or he should or should not consume a product is not relevant--the cognitive persuasion is replaced to a large degree with a behavioral directive.
In other product categories, information that is provided for the same intended outcome may be unused or misused, depending on the consumption situation. For example, consumers may respond differently to nutrition labeling in restaurants than to that same labeling on products in grocery stores. Restaurant diners may be less calorie- or nutrition-conscious if they are celebrating a birthday, avoiding cooking or taking a client to lunch. On the other hand, menu labeling would provide the caloric total for an entire dish and consumers would not have to calculate the total calories for individual ingredients of a home-prepared meal. Any of the above would only be effective if an individual knows what a "calorie" is, how different types of nutrients---even those in the same nutrient category ("carbohydrate" or "protein")--are processed by the body or how the ultimate caloric intake may be mooted by the glycemic index of a particular food, or whether consumers' label use has any effect on body mass index (Drichoutis, Nayga, and Lazaridis 2009).
Much consumer information is provided as a hope that some normatively determined outcome will result. Tightly controlled experimental studies may suggest that consumer decisions may be influenced by this type of information, but "actual results may vary" and depend on many other factors.
RESEARCH IN (PRODUCT) LITERACY
Most adults in the United States can read prose at a basic, measurable level. Still, the proportion that cannot--about one out of seven in the most recent national survey (2003)--provokes alarm. Task-based reading literacy is generally measured in large formal studies as separate scores along three dimensions--prose, document and quantitative. These assessments are limited to measuring how people use "printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential" (National Assessment of Adult Literacy 2003). The ability to read about a product or interpret marketing-related materials is considered to be an important enough component of an individual's life to be included as content for these general literacy tests. For example, participants in the National Assessment of Adult Literacy from 2003 (National Center for Education Statistics 2011a) were asked to explain the views of two different newspaper articles toward the production of fuel-efficient cars. In the National Assessment of Educational Progress (National Center for Education Statistics 2011b), elementary and high school students were asked questions related to apartment rental agreements, information provided in newspaper advertisements and calculation of the total cost of buying some compact disks.
Other studies have assessed consumers' reading literacy more directly. In research undertaken by the Consumer Federation of America, Brobeck (1990) found that even highly educated adults responded correctly only 62% of the time to questions dealing with banking, insurance, product safety, food and buying a house or car. A later study (Brobeck 1991) found that high school seniors were generally unprepared for critical purchasing decisions (answering 42% of the questions correctly) across a range of consumer subjects including credit, checking accounts, car insurance or purchase, housing rental and food purchases. Low reading and math skills, inadequate consumer education and lack of marketplace experience were among the factors contributing to these low levels of consumer competency.
An even narrower domain for study involves category-specific "literacy," including studies that have examined not only how well people read or interpret written information but also how they behave once having the information. Some consumer research in this area is arguably atheoretical, examining "what people (do not) know" about products they buy (Kopp and Kemp 2007; Perry 2008), while some research addresses reading ability in more general consumer cultural settings (Adkins and Ozanne 2005; Jae and Delvecchio 2004; Wallendorf 2001). Reading level alone (especially considering the difficulty of assessing true reading level) does not explain the complex human skills involved in becoming a product-literate consumer, even in these narrower contexts (Garrison et al. 2012; Labrecque et al. 2012).
A stronger conceptual and theoretical framework would assist in a better understanding and assessment of product literacy and also provide a guide for decision making and research (McGregor 2011). The following sections provide (1) a definition of product literacy and (2) the development of a conceptual model, characterized by four domains whose interaction results in product literacy outcomes.
DEFINING PRODUCT LITERACY
Product literacy is the degree to which consumers have the capacity to locate, obtain, evaluate, apply and communicate basic information needed to make appropriate product-related decisions. This is a broader concept than fundamental, functional "reading literacy" (Viswanathan, Rosa, and Harris 2005) and would include the ability to make comparisons among products, evaluate and incorporate new information effectively and use products in an individually and/or societally beneficial way.
In addition to formal (regulatory) communications efforts, factors that impact product literacy include experiential and sociological components as well as product-related communications that extend beyond reading skills, such as the power of spoken communication and the use of a variety of media. This encompasses product category-specific literacies, providing a use-appropriate framework that may be adapted across consumption situations. Product literacy will evolve over a consumer's life and, like most complex human abilities, will be affected by individual personality traits as well as demographic, sociopolitical, psychosocial and cultural factors.
It should be pointed out that outcomes of product literacy are not necessarily positive and are not limited to "favorable" behavior--that is, even when consumers are given the "right" kinds of information in the "right" form, their decisions may not result in a socially desirable outcome. For example, despite wide media coverage about the potential hazards of eating raw oysters, the overall demand for the product does not decline, but rather shifts from one geographic source to another (Dedah, Keithly, and Kazmierczak 2011). Consumers streamline, take shortcuts and use decision rules that may not always seem academically logical, but which nevertheless may represent practical means for achieving individual goals. Although most economists and other consumer interest behavioral scientists may concur that consumers make cognitive errors and fickle decisions, the extent to which these phenomena impair actual purchase decisions is not at all clear (Garrison et al. 2012). The model offered in the following section focuses on an individual's interaction with information but also includes these other influences.
A CONCEPTUAL MODEL FOR PRODUCT LITERACY
Under the definition described above, product literacy includes, but is broader than, fundamental reading literacy. It also involves a number of different individual, experiential and societal constructs. A basic model, provided in Figure 1, suggests that individual and external factors must be considered to examine their interactive influences on product literacy.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
First, individual factors include the ability to acquire and use accurate product-related knowledge. At a very "micro" level, individual characteristics may include those that are relatively easy to measure: demographics, product experience and level of formal education. Possibly more significant, but more difficult to identify and measure, are those individual traits that many product literacy studies attempt to evaluate: information-seeking skills, beliefs and acumen; values; self-regulation and self-management; the ability to make balanced decisions; motivation to achieve desirable outcomes and expectations about achieving outcomes. This will include the ability to link objective and subjective knowledge of potential benefits and harms that reside in product decision-related outcomes. Additional traits remain to be considered: for example, multiple intelligences theory (Gardner 1993) offers that there are many ways of "knowing" about things, and this may provide some explanation for frustrating study outcomes when traditional dependent variables suggest consumers do not "know" much about the products they continue to purchase and consume.
Second, at the meso level, a consumer's product literacy will be influenced by interpersonal external contextual elements. There are many organizations and interpersonal relationships that compose a consumer's "community," creating social norms and social networks (Terry, Hogg and White 2000). However, life circumstances, family and other close social contexts and material circumstances beyond the measures of demographics will also play a role. Social norms have a relatively large effect on healthy lifestyle and socially responsible behaviors; there is generally considered to be a high association between social norms and attitudes for everyday consumption decisions such as choices between food, drinks and leisure time activities (Melnyk, van Herpen, and van Trijp 2010). However, individual studies tend to find differences in these relationships across consumption contexts (Rivis and Sheeran 2003; Sheeran, Abraham, and Orbell 1999).
Most social psychological behavioral models make implicit reference to factors that are external to the individual. For example, the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen 1991), the Theory of Reasoned Action (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980) and the Theory of Interpersonal Behavior (Triandis 1980) are widely applied, but all limit the inclusion of the influence of environmental factors on behavioral change to narrow contexts of "perceived behavioral control" or "facilitating conditions." A third element that influences product literacy is thus composed of those formal, public sources of information through product manufacturers, governments and non-government organizations. The extent to which these external institutions provide an environment in which consumers can acquire and use information may represent competing, confusing or conflicting data. Most research related to consumer product literacy has focused on this perspective.
For example, in 2010, over 90 million people in the United States owned shares in at least 1 of over 7,000 mutual funds (Investment Company Institute 2010). Advertising for mutual funds has generated debate; it may produce outcomes that are contrary to the intended effects in terms of consumers' financial welfare. As with other complex products, the advertising of mutual funds is subject to restrictions, including disclosures that warn potential investors of the risks inherent in these investments. Lee, Yun, and Haley (2012) examine the effectiveness of these disclosures. Their experimental results suggest that mutual fund ads that include the financial disclosures are more likely to result in higher levels of recall, more favorable attitudes toward the ad claims and greater intentions to invest. Additionally, the level of knowledge of investors plays a role in how the ad claims are processed.
Capella, Taylor, and Kees (2012) also examine the effects of government-mandated product information, using smokeless tobacco as the context. Currently, packaging and promotional material for smokeless tobacco must include warning information that emulates that required for cigarettes. The authors assert that the scientific community considers smokeless tobacco to be a relatively lower risk alternative to cigarettes, but that manufacturers are not allowed to communicate any information in advertising or promotional materials to suggest a potential reduction in harm to consumers. In a series of experiments, the authors find evidence that conflicting information provided by the advertiser (a warning statement accompanied by a harm reduction statement) does not have the favorable effects desired: smokers were not more likely to switch to the less-harmful product.
Zank and Kemp (2012) raise the issue of whether consumers understand information related to fiber claims. Food manufacturers have begun to promote the fiber content of products; "fiber" occurs in different forms, and one form may not provide the same nutritional benefits as another. The authors examine consumer responses to fiber-specific health claims and find that consumers may be unable to distinguish between the types of fiber in foods or the functions of fiber in one's diet; however, consumers may perceive products with fiber claims as more nutritious than those without fiber claims, whether the product provides those health benefits or not. Based on the results of their study, Zank and Kemp (2012) made recommendations for both consumer education and information provision.
In contrast, Labrecque et al. (2012) reveals that one product literacy outcome--withdrawing from a market--is also susceptible to impediments, not from lack of reading skills, but from lack of availability and implementation of information. As online technology has continued to advance, consumers have become concerned about the unauthorized use of their personal information. Labrecque et al. (2012) finds not only that consumers are not knowledgeable about the information that is disseminated about themselves through online white pages directories but also that consumers are unaware of the difficulties involved in opting out of these directories. This is especially significant because Labrecque et al. (2012) provides evidence that the removal process is quite arduous.
Fourth, factors that operate at a national or even international level can also have a considerable influence on individual behavior. Wider or macro environmental factors can directly affect product literacy and may include technology, the economy, taxation and legislation. Indirectly, these same macro factors may affect the extent to which external institutions--manufacturers, governments and non-government organizations--create an environment in which individuals can acquire and use information. In research that underlines the dynamic environmental factors that contribute to and erode product literacy, Worosz and Wilson (2012) draw from several literatures to describe the "conventionalization" of organic foods. Information in the form of definitions and standards is at the core of product literacy. This information can be transformed by entities beyond the original community of consumers of a product, eventually can alter consumers' values and understanding of the products, but also facilitate changes in the products themselves. The authors draw a parallel between the events and outcomes in organics to the current example of "gluten-free" products.
It is clear that a variety of approaches, methods, theories and research traditions are useful and necessary to bring about a more complete understanding of product literacy. Any research, interpretation of results or policy decision making that focus on any one facet can underestimate the effects of other components. As an initial outline, the model above is offered to encourage discussion, refinement and the incorporation of other models and conceptualizations; this will also allow the development of valid and reliable components of a consumer product literacy profile.
Discussion and empirical evidence presented in this issue of the Journal of Consumer Affairs and elsewhere suggest that research can contribute to our understanding of product literacy. This can lead to more effective consumer education and information disclosure, which in turn can improve individual outcomes, increase general consumer well-being and enhance the performance of markets.
In today's global, technology-rich world, it is nearly compulsory that consumers be able not only to read and write but also to recognize the difference between a legitimate dietary supplement and a money-making infomercial. They need to be informed and competent when making expensive decisions about cars, housing, retirement funds and funerals, but also when making decisions about pharmaceuticals, home appliances, groceries and household chemicals. Product literacy is not format specific, but rather necessitates the evaluation and application of information presented in a USA Today article, Pinterest (1) posting or e-mail message.
Further research involving product literacy will require drawing on the knowledge generated through multiple academic arenas and pluralistic research approaches that can contribute to a very rich understanding of how consumers acquire, understand and use product information. For decades, the Journal of Consumer Affairs has pursued questions and examined the complexities of consumer product literacy (Ford and Mazis 1996; Hoek et al. 2011; Slagle 1985; Turner and Brandt 1978), no doubt offering more cross-disciplinary coverage than any other academic journal. The present special issue is intended to highlight the breadth of the product literacy domain, to stimulate further thought and continued research in this area and to offer bases upon which to make decisions in the consumer interest.
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* Invited article. Steven W. Kopp (email@example.com) is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
(1.) Pinterest is a social networking application that works by allowing a user to "pin" visual materials from various Web locations onto one's own theme-based bulletin board.