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Educating the Consumer

shutterstock_328985720Who is responsible for educating consumers? Is the government? Consumers themselves? Or does marketing need to take a lead role, asks Sheena Horgan

As consumer products come under greater ethical scrutiny, there is a growing voice that suggests more consumer education is required. Whilst on one hand the number of consumer education campaigns here in Ireland is greater, or at least more visible than the UK, we do seem remiss in shifting the dial in many regards. I see the recent RTÉ programme “Sugar Crash” as a case in point when the media and playground chatter following the airing was about how much sugar is in juice. How did people not already know that?

So where does the responsibility lie, and who is best placed to deliver effective education.

According to “Consumer Education Responsibilities” by Thom van Mierlo of the Social and Economic Council in The Netherlands, government has a critical role to “encourage and support consumer education” especially vulnerable groups. He talks about consumer competences and about government ensuring consumer education accompanies legislation and financial instruments. Basic consumer legislation is essential, however, what is its relevance or impact, if consumer competence is insufficient?

Intuitively, government is the key player in consumer education, and should both monitor and evaluate the consumer content and critically the effects of any consumer-related government policy, but van Mierlo also clarifies the consumer’s role in all this. “First responsibility for consumer education rests with consumers themselves They should make effort to avail themselves of consumer education on offer … to be a fully-equipped consumer”. Of course this begs the question what if there isn’t much “on offer,” what is a consumer to do?

Which brings me to van Mierlo’s definition of the relevance of consumer education as a “tool for influencing, improving consumer behaviour and help for consumers choosing products, handling information selectively and asking the right questions.” Well, when it’s put like that it seems a natural home should be within marketing’s remit surely?

Van Mierlo identifies three key points. First of all, he says manufacturers are responsible for their product and communication including relevant product information Secondly he says retailers are responsible for providing this information and answering elementary questions on rights and duties. Finally, he says sector organisations are responsible for providing their members with information on rights / duties, transparency in markets as well as manuals for sales staff in shops.

I like the clarity but it’s a bit too categorised for me. I think the above roles are more blurred than suggested, and if by the various definitions of consumer education – it influences or leads to a particular behaviour – then it follows that industry collectively and businesses individually, have a greater part to play than the narrow elements above.

The Canadian consumer expert Dr Sue L.T. McGregor, meanwhile, has an interesting proposition regarding the approach to consumer education. Writing for an OECD publication entitled “Ideological Maps of Consumer Education” she suggests that the dominant ideology is about consumer self-interest rather than citizen interest. As you’d expect from previous columns, I feel this has shifted more towards the latter in recent years as the consensual consumer has become a savvier but her premise presents a valid rationale for where consumer education is lacking.

“Past adherence to the dominant camp has left us with a legacy – the habit of observing consumer processes in their isolation, detached from the whole vast interconnections of things, thus producing a narrow-mindedness of what it means to do consumer-related research, and by association consumer education initiatives,” she writes.

The narrowness of education initiatives (and joined-up thinking) is a likely cause for the diluted efficacy of current and past educational initiatives. A case in point is the current call in the media for more fit-for-purpose food labelling. I find this ironic when as far back as December 2002 a Report of the Food Labelling Group – Department of Agriculture and Food – cited research that said 41% of consumers said food labelling was either quite or very (8% and 33% respectively) confusing: opinions of labels on food, almost the same as those who found it quite clear (42%). Consequently recommendation 17 of the report said “The food and drinks industry should play a leading role in educating the consumer about labels”. That was 14 years ago and whilst labelling has undergone some changes (most allegedly in the consumers’ interest) actual education around labelling – aside from a few articles in the media and several reasonably low key campaigns from non-commercial organisations – has not been moved markedly on. I suspect if the same research was conducted today it reveal the same findings as those from more than a decade ago.

Consumers want to make informed decisions. But for that they need clear not cryptic information. Industry and brands have a role here, as well as the capacity with their marketing resources and expertise, if they have the appetite. Of course there is always the explicitly veiled threat of legislation that comes to the fore every few months. (Personally I feel the cumbersome and costly pursuit of this is prohibitive). But perhaps a role-reversed lobbying by government on brands rather than the other way around may result in more proactivity in this regard?


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