Consumer Product Info - Regulation or Markets?

60 Minutes had an interesting and balanced piece last night on proposals to mandate that fast-food restaurants promote calorie information by placing it directly on their menus.

This fits in a category of regulation that is increasingly prominent: mandated disclosure and promotion of product information. There are plenty of examples: financial privacy notices, real estate purchasing notices, nutrition labeling, etc.

If consumers had unlimited attention, the surfeit of notices would be an unqualified good thing. But consumer attention is not unlimited. Consumers quickly learn to ignore notices that don’t interest them. Notices can easily confuse consumers. Mandated notices often provide information that consumers would already get in more accessible ways.

Nutrition labeling is the sacred cow of mandated disclosure, of course, and mandating calorie notices in restaurants is one of its calves. Everyone who talks about nutrition labeling uses nutrition labeling and so can’t believe that anyone doesn’t. But it certainly hasn’t done anything to change the trend in U.S. obesity since the 1990 law requiring nutrition labeling went into effect.

Note in the 60 Minutes piece how proponents of calorie labeling really are just social engineers. They can’t outlaw you buying that Big Mac, so they’re going to put discouragement in your face using the intermediary of Mickey D’s. They mean well, but I’d just as well have them mind their own business.

Information about products and services is subject to market demand just like every other feature of the things we buy. If you don’t believe me, try running a grocery store without putting price tags on or near the canned peaches.