It is increasingly evident that governmental provision of public services can benefit significantly from an understanding of the consumers, or users, of these services. Numerous analysts have noted that our frequently failing mass transportation systems will not be viable alternatives to private automobile travel until government planners fully understand how to appeal to the wants and needs of the public. In other cases, state and municipal planners must make a variety of decisions, including where to locate highways, what areas to consider for future commercial growth, and the type of public services (such as health care and libraries) to offer. The effectiveness of these decisions will be influenced by the extent to which they are based on an adequate understanding of consumers. This requires knowledge of people’s attitudes, beliefs perceptions and habits as well as how they tend to behave under a variety of circumstances.
In New York City, subway travel had been taking a nosedive. Faced with declining passengers and the likelihood of more automobiles clogging the streets of Manhattan, the Metropolitan Transit Authority was under the gun to increase usage of its subway system. Several promotional campaigns had been tried in a six month period, including print and radio ads designed to increase midday usage. However, results had been less than encouraging. Consequently, $ 2 million dollars was budgeted for a series of commercials on local cable and broadcast television stations. The theme of the ads involved testimonials from MTA workers claiming that although all is not yet rosy, a multi-dollar rebuilding program will make riding the subway a pleasant and convenient form of transportation to those in and around the Big Apple. That is, the goal was to change people’s negative perceptions of the system. However, critics pointed out that the promotions failed to address the root cause of declining passengers rising crime, long lines, broken equipment, and presence of undesirable types of people on the subway. A promotional campaign that draws people in only to have them confront the problems that exist can have only a short term effect. Fix the underlying problems then consumers will again return to using the subway.
Many agencies at all levels of government are involved with regulating business practices for the purpose of protecting consumers’ welfare. Some government programs are also designed to influence certain consumer actions directly (such as the use of auto seat belts) and discourage others (speeding , drug abuse, and so on) In addition, over thirty federal agencies, including the Department of Commerce, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Federal Trade Commissioner (FTC) have increased their efforts to provide consumers with information believed useful for making purchase decisions. The following serves to illustrate the nature of some of the issues government decisions makers confront in their consumer protection efforts.
The year 1986 was a significant one in the oral care market. That was when a number of products began making claims about the plaque- and tartar fighting capabilities of new mouth washes and tooth pastes.
Under FDA regulations, advertisements incorporating plaque control claims are allowed for toothpaste because the mechanical act of brushing with or without toothpaste helps remove plaque. However, the FDA requires proof of any certain ingredients in mouthwashes or toothpastes can themselves reduce plaque and help the user avoid gingivitis problems (gum disease). The FDA’s position is that consumers should be protected against claims not substantiated by research.
The FDA has maintained that none of the plaque and gingivitis fighting claims made by six producers of mouthwash and toothpaste has been sufficiently substantiated by the evidence provided, especially regarding gingivitis. Therefore, they have warned these companies (Colgate Palmolive, Beechan, Pfizer, SC Johnson & Son, and others) about the claims made in their ads. In 1990 this left Colgate-Palmolive in the position of holding off US introduction of its anti plaque gum protection toothpaste containing triclosan an anti bacterial agent. This toothpaste was already on the market in several other countries, but FDA standards regarding substantiation of advertising claims to protect consumers delayed US introduction.
Unfortunately, it appears that the effect of many consumer protection efforts has considerably less than expected, and in some cases the efforts may actually have had negative consequences for consumers. Often this occurs because officials have based their decisions on inadequate understanding of consumers and how they process information.