Health and well-being are incredibly important to consumers, and this interest has led to the boom of news outlets covering health-related information. Unfortunately, many medical sources lack credibility and thus pose a serious threat to consumers through erroneous or exaggerated claims. Due to the overtly bombastic nature of much of cable TV’s programming, consumers might be hesitant to believe the claims of a celebrity physician’s on-air endorsement of a health product. But what if that product is being similarly endorsed by a more legitimate news website?
The authors of a recent Journal of Marketing Research study find empirical evidence of just such a cascading flow of “hype news”—news or information that is not fake but is taken out of context, exaggerated, and overgeneralized to gain public attention. For example, in response to endorsements of health products by Dr. Oz, more legitimate news outlets often post articles about the ingredients in those health products. However, the content posted by the news outlets tends use more positive language, amplifying the hype instead of rectifying it. The authors also prove that online customer reviews do little to correct the issue, while research-oriented articles are published too slowly to have a meaningful impact on correcting the hype news. These findings suggest there may be a need for greater scrutiny, not only of the products but also of the news sources that are amplifying the potentially inaccurate health benefits of these products.
Content posted by legitimate news outlets tends use more positive language, amplifying the hype instead of rectifying it.
As this topic has important practical implications for consumers, marketers, and healthcare professionals, we wanted to garner some further insights from the authors of this interesting study. In response to several of our questions, the authors provided us with some unique insights into this topic:
Q: Fake news is often detected in a social media environment, but hype news is more difficult to detect. What are some effective mechanisms and interventions to detect hype news in the healthcare context?
A: Effective regulation of these OTC products—and, more importantly, endorsements—could be some near-term prescriptions. On the other hand, more consumer education and warnings about potential misinformation may be helpful, so they can take the initiative to think more critically, set more reasonable expectations, and make more careful decisions.
Q: Some news agencies (i.e., Forbes) allow for some articles to be published that are paid for. Could it be that the news agencies that are propagating the biased information are receiving compensation? For example, it seems like less reputable OTC products are more likely than other product categories to “pay for play” with news outlets.
A: This could be possible. On the one hand, we included the firms’ advertisement spending as a control variable in our analysis; so, this factor is well accounted for. On the other hand, our data does not allow us to test the exact reasons that may have driven the magnifying effect of the news articles. It could be simply to attract viewership, and there could be other reasons, such as your proposed “pay for play”.
Q: Do these products have affiliate marketing programs, whereby individuals or firms can receive compensation for referring sales? If so, could you see some of the online news sites, especially those of smaller publications, running articles that do not correct the bias because they are looking to gain affiliate revenues instead?
A: Related to our response to the first question, we observe firms’ spending on promotion (which may include compensation for referring sales), but we do not see the data on how exactly a firm allocated such promotion spending. What you suggest is totally possible as another reason for news articles’ magnifying effect, but unfortunately, we cannot verify it from our data.
Q: Does political identity (e.g., liberal vs. conservative) play a role in motivating news agencies to disseminate misleading health information?
A: It may depend on whether doing so will bring any benefit to a political identity. In the domain of weight-loss healthcare products, the benefit does not seem clear to me. That said, we did not examine this aspect in our paper as it is not our focus.
Q: The authors show that hype news leads to a ~30% increase in consumer searches for the recommended ingredients. Is there a similar lift for the brand names of the most popular drugs being hyped?
A: As Dr. Oz did not mention any specific brand for each recommended ingredient, we did not conduct such an analysis on brand names. However I agree this is an interesting additional check to make in the future; one may collect search interest data for each brand and follow the similar econometric analysis used in the paper to examine if there is also brand lift.
Q: Do results and the Oz effect hold for non-OTC products?
A: Our research is relevant to OTC health products and has no bearing on the purchase and consumption of prescription medications. For other specific product categories, new data and empirical studies need to be conducted to make an accurate claim.
Read the full article:
Zijun (June) Shi, Xiao Liu, and Kannan Srinivasan (2022), “Hype News Diffusion and Risk of Misinformation: The Oz Effect in Health Care,” Journal of Marketing Research, 59 (2), 327–52. doi:10.1177/00222437211044472.