Drug commercials that warn consumers about serious side effects may actually encourage them to make a purchase after a period of time rather than scare them away. This is according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science.

The study was conducted by researchers from the INSEAD Business School in Singapore, Tel Aviv University in Israel, and New York University in the US.

The team performed four experiments on participants to explore how adding warnings of potential drug side effects may influence consumer decision making.

“We were struck by just how detailed, clear and scary many warnings had become with regard to potential negative side effects of products,” says Ziv Carmon of INSEAD Business School and study author.

“It then occurred to us that such warnings might perversely boost rather than detract from the appeal of the risky product.”

In one experiment, smokers were shown a commercial for a brand of cigarettes. Some smokers were shown an advertisement with a warning that smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema, while others viewed an advertisement without a health warning.

Participants who were given the opportunity to purchase a pack of cigarettes directly after viewing the commercial with the health warning bought less.

However, when these participants had the opportunity to buy cigarettes a few days later, they bought more, compared with the participants who viewed the commercial without the health warning.

The researchers say the reason for this is because the psychological distance created by the delay between exposure to the commercial and the customer decision made the side effects appear “abstract” – they saw the warning as “an indication of the firm’s honesty and trustworthiness.”

Carmon adds:

Messages that warn consumers about potentially harmful side effects – presumably with the intent to nudge them to act more cautiously – can ironically backfire.”

Additionally, when the participants were told that certain drugs for erectile dysfunction and hair loss had potentially serious side effects, they favored them more, classing them as more trustworthy once they were told the products were yet to reach the shelves.

The researchers note that their findings are important, as these types of warnings on commercials are found everywhere and extend beyond drugs, to medical procedures, sporting activities and even financial investments.

Carmon says he hopes their research makes consumers realize how warnings on drug commercials can rebound, and that the delayed effect on consumers may pose problems:

“This effect may fly under the radar since people who try to protect the public – regulatory agencies, for example – tend to test the impact of a warning shortly after consumers are exposed to it. By doing so, they miss out on this worrisome delayed outcome.”

Medical News Today recently reported that health warnings on cigarette packs have little impact on teenagers.