Labels: Easy To Read, Not Always Easy To Trust

How meaningful and trustworthy are seals of approval from the likes of Energy Star and Good Housekeeping? NPR's Arun Rath speaks with advertising expert Lucy Atkinson about their validity.

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You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. If you've spent any time this weekend out shopping for appliances or gadgets, you've undoubtedly encountered seals of approval from the likes of Good Housekeeping, Energy Star, Parents' Choice or UL, Underwriter's Laboratories. But do these fancy, gold embossed seals really guarantee a superior product? Lucy Atkinson studies the intersection of politics and consumer behavior act UT Austin's Moody College of Communication. When it comes to the value of these labels, she says, well, it depends. Why? In part because the endorsements come from so many different sources.

LUCY ATKINSON: Government endorsed entities like the USDA's Organic label or the Energy Star label coming from the EPA, but you get labels coming from corporations themselves. And they vary in terms of their credibility, how consumers trust them. And they vary substantially in terms of how they are regulated, how they're enforced and how they're tested.

RATH: So if I see USDA Organic, than that must come from the government. But something like Fair Trade is that - where does not come from?

ATKINSON: A Fair Trade label, that comes from a third-party entity. And they do - Fair Trade themselves, they do a very good job of evaluating whether a particular brand, a particular product adheres to their standard. So they're one of those labels that consumers can look at and the pretty confident that there's some truth to it, that there's some group that is monitoring it.

RATH: So what recourse do people have just at the individual level when products don't live up to the standards on the certification?

ATKINSON: Very little I would say. You know, we recently bought a washer and and dryer. And it has the nice Energy Star label on it. Then it tells me how much on average it would cost a year to run it. I really have no way of verifying that. So for the individual consumer, they just have to take it on face value that when I'm buying something that says it's a cage free egg, for example - that that's what it is.

RATH: So do you think people are better off - like, if you're buying appliances or anything - that you're better off relying on investigative journalism than looking at the labels?

ATKINSON: I think probably a combination of all of them. And when we talk about things like appliances that are expensive and people tend to buy them infrequently, those are the kinds of things that people tend to do a lot of research about so they will kind of triangulate. They'll look at labels, they'll look at consumer reports, they'll go online and read Yelp reviews. So I think for those high-involvement products, the best way is to rely on a number of different sources of information.

RATH: Lucy Atkinson is an assistant professor of advertising at the University of Texas in Austin. Thanks very much.

ATKINSON: Thank you.

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