Labels – Recognizing marketing labels

In this series, we explore labels on our everyday products to understand the ingredients that we consume and use. In this post, we'll explore marketing labels.

What is a marketing label? 

A marketing label is a featured word or image that is highlighted on a product’s packaging to encourage sales. Often, these words underscore an ingredient or process that implies health, safety, or effectiveness.  

What do these labels focus on? 

These labels typically focus on ingredients and processes that consumers may believe lead to better health, better outcomes, or a lessened environmental impact. For example, some people prefer to buy products they view as healthful and sustainableso they will look to cues on product packaging such as “all-natural,” “high-fiber,” or other labels that call out a food or product’s positive attributes. 

While these labels can have a positive impact, they can also cause some confusion. For example, “gluten-free” has recently taken off in the past few years popping up on many products. While this label is vital for individuals with celiac disease, most people do not need gluten-free foods or products for their health. This is what’s referred to as a redundant “trend” or “hype” labeling.  

What is "trend" labeling? 

When health fads become part of mainstream conversations, companies may repackage, relabel, or even reformulate products to meet the trend. 

For example, “gluten-free,” “fortified with ___,” “natural,” and “clean” are common marketing labels found on products. Sometimes these labels, such as “gluten-free,” are put on products that never contained gluten such as sugar, rice cereal, and even bottled water. 

When manufacturers advertise that a product is fortified with a specific ingredient, they are simply advertising the ingredient which is already listed on the “Nutritional Facts” for food or on the ingredient list for cosmetic and other household products. Drawing attention to those ingredients may influence a person’s decision to purchase the product. However, people can read the label and see what ingredients are present without the additional marketing label. 

For marketing labels, such as the “clean” label we see clearly see redundant trend labeling. It’s redundant because manufactures cannot put out unsafe or unhygienic products to the public, so labeling a product as “clean” does not provide any additional information unless a company defines their use of the “clean” label. It’s also a trend label because it is harnessing a lifestyle fad that has become part of public conversations.  

Are these labels regulated? 

Unlike government-certified labels, such as USDA Organic, the vast majority of marketing labels are not regulated by the government. They are either added by the manufacturer to call out an ingredient, such as “fortified with vitamins” or they can be certified by a third-party organization, such as the “Non-GMO Project,” which requires manufacturers to meet specific standards. 

Marketing labels reflect neither the health nor safety of the product. Health information on food is typically found on the “Nutrition Facts” label. That label will let you know what is in the product and how it fits with your personal nutritional needs. 

Marketing labels for cosmetic and household products may call out an ingredient or an expected outcome, but only the regulated labels on cosmetics and household products reflect the safe use of the product and list the ingredients, providing you with an understanding of the product you’re purchasing without the additional marketing influence.  

Are there marketing labels on all products? 

Marketing labels differ by product. For over the counter (OTC) medications, companies can only label products with proven claims such as a pain-relieving medication advertising a “rapid release” formula. 

Foods and cosmetics are different. They can contain many marketing labels as long as they are not misleading. For example, some hair care products now put “gluten-free” labels on their packaging. While the product is gluten-free, there is no medical evidence that someone would need a “gluten-free” hair product for their health.  

Can manufacturers make false claims on marketing labels? 

While companies can put marketing labels on products, they must be truthful. If claims are gravely misleading, disingenuous, or otherwise cause harm the manufacturers are in violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s laws that prohibit false advertising and that can lead to serious legal repercussions. 

Marketing labels are not intended to mislead the public, rather they are intended to quickly show what manufacturers believe to be a product’s positive attributes.  

What else should I know about marketing labels? 

The most powerful tool you have to understand a product you’re purchasing is the required product labelingThe required labeling will tell you the ingredients, how best to use a product, allergen information, what quantity is ideal, and the product’s safety.  

Reading the full, federally regulated labels rather than relying on marketing labels gives you the power to make informed decisions. 

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