The average consumer, the unfair commercial practices directive, and the cognitive revolution

Abstract

This article examines the merit of the test of the average consumer as a basis for judicial and regulatory action. In the first part, we describe the origin of the test, its application in the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive and its possible developments. In the second part, we discuss the theoretical grounds of the average consumer test (i.e., information and rationality), drawing upon the studies of cognitive psychology and behavioural economics concerning consumers’ behaviour. The result of our analysis is that we call into serious question the practical workability of the test of the average consumer, which requires consumers an overly demanding standard of rationality and information without dedicating much attention to the real functioning of consumer behaviour. The average consumer may be described as an interesting, anti-paternalistic and, to some extent, useful notion. It is, however, an overly simplistic concept with little correspondence with the real world of individual consumer behaviour and should be reinterpreted more flexibly, or even abandoned to mirror consumer behaviour more effectively.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Gut Springenheide GmbH, Rudolf Tusky v. Oberkreisdirektor des Kreises Steinfurt—Amt für Lebensmittelüberwachung, judgement of the Court of Justice (Fifth Chamber) of 16 July 1998, case C-210/96, ECR, 1998, I-4657, § 31.

  2. 2.

    CeWe Color AG & Co. OHG v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), judgement of the Court of First Instance (Fifth Chamber) of 8 September 2005, joined cases T-178/03 and T-179/03, § 28.

  3. 3.

    New Look Ltd v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), judgement of the Court of First Instance of 6 October 2004, joint cases T-117/03 to T-119/03 and T-171/03, § 20.

  4. 4.

    New Look Ltd v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), quoted above, § 43.

  5. 5.

    The views and the knowledge of professionals (who may, for a particular contract, act like consumers) have not been considered relevant. See Vitaly Lissotschenko and Joachim Hentze v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), judgement of the Court of First Instance of 20 July 2004, case T-311/02, § 28.

  6. 6.

    Miles Handelsgesellschaft International mbH v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market, judgement of the Court of First Instance (Fourth Chamber) of 7 July 2005, case T-385/03.

  7. 7.

    See Frischpack GmbH & Co. KG v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), judgement of the Court of First Instance (Fifth Chamber) of 23 November 2004, case T-360/03; Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM) v. Erpo Möbelwerk GmbH, judgement of the ECJ of 21 October 2004, case C-64/02, ECR, 2004, I-10031; New Look Ltd, supra fn. 7; Applied Molecular Evolution Inc. v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), judgement of the Court of First Instance of 14 September 2004, case T-183/03; Vitaly Lissotschenko and Joachim Hentze v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), judgement of the Court of First Instance of 20 July 2004, case T-311/02; Procter & Gamble Company v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), judgement of the ECJ 29 April 2004, joined cases C-473/01 and C-474/01, ECR, 2004, I-5141; El Corte Ingles, SA v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), judgement of the ECJ of 11 November 2004, joined cases T-183/02 and T-184/02, ECR, 2004, II-965.

  8. 8.

    August Storck KG v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), judgement of the Court of First Instance (Fourth Chamber) of 10 November 2004, Case T-402/02; Mag Instruments Inc. v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), judgement of the Court (Second Chamber) of 7 October 2004, C-136/02, ECR, 2004, I-9165 and the opinion of Mr Advocate General Ruiz-Jarabo Colomer delivered on 16 March 2004, case C-136/02.

  9. 9.

    Verein gegen Unwesen in Handel und Gewerbe Köln v. Adolf Darbo AG, judgement of the Court of First Instance (First Chamber) of 4 April 2000, case C-465/98, ECR, 2000, I-2297, § 22.

  10. 10.

    Douwe Egberts NV v. Westrom Pharma NV and Christophe Souranis, judgement of case C-239/02, judgement of the ECJ of 15 July 2004, ECR, 2004, I-7007.

  11. 11.

    Douwe Egberts NV v. Westrom Pharma NV and Christophe Souranis, opinion of Advocate General Geelhoed of 11 December 2003 at § 54. Emphasis added.

  12. 12.

    Lloyd Schuhfabrik Meyer & Co. GmbH v. Klijsen Handel BV., judgement of the Court of 22 June 1999, case C-342/97, ECR, 1999, I-3819. In this case, the German proprietor of the mark “Lloyd” for footwear sought to prevent the use of the defendant’s mark “Loint’s” also for footwear.

  13. 13.

    Ib., §§ 9 and 25; see also the opinion of Mr Advocate General Jacobs of 29 October 1998, ECR, 1999, I-3819.

  14. 14.

    Ib., §§ 26–27. Emphasis added.

  15. 15.

    Ib., § 23. At § 24, the ECJ specified however that “[it] is not possible to state in general terms, for example by referring to given percentages relating to the degree of recognition attained by the mark within the relevant section of the public, when a mark has a strong distinctive character.”

  16. 16.

    Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV v. Remington Consumer Products Ltd, judgement of the ECJ of 18 June 2002, ECR, 2002, I-5475.

  17. 17.

    Procter & Gamble Company v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (OHIM), supra fn. 11.

  18. 18.

    LTJ Diffusion SA v. SA Sadas Vertbaudet SA, judgement of the ECJ of 20 March 2003, case C-291/00, ECR, 2003, I-2799.

  19. 19.

    Ib., §§ 52–53.

  20. 20.

    The benefits of the Directive will not, however, be realised at its effective date (Article 19). The Directive allows member States for an extended period of up to six years from 12 June 2007 to continue to apply national provisions which are more stringent than those it envisages, in compliance with pre-existing minimum harmonization directives. Thus the benefits to result from the harmonization, the movement toward a growing sense of economic community, and transactional confidence for businesses and consumers will all be deferred [Articles 3(5) and 18].

  21. 21.

    Article 2 of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive defines the consumer and not the average consumer. Express reference to the average consumer is, however, made in Articles 5(2)b, 6(1), 7(1) and 8 of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive.

  22. 22.

    The Directive uses and defines the expression “to materially distort the economic behaviour of consumers,” meaning using a commercial practice which “appreciably impair[s] the consumer’s ability to make an informed decision, thereby causing the consumer to take a transactional decision that he would not have taken otherwise” [Article 2(e) and 5(2)(b)].

  23. 23.

    To make organic a piecemeal system, Annex 2 of the Directive further lists the obligations of information outlined in pre-existing directives.

  24. 24.

    Article 5(3) of the Directive: “Commercial practices which are likely to materially distort the economic behaviour only of a clearly identifiable group of consumers who are particularly vulnerable to the practice or the underlying product because of their mental or physical infirmity, age or credulity in a way which the trader could reasonably be expected to foresee, shall be assessed from the perspective of the average member of that group.” See also Recital 19 of the Directive.

  25. 25.

    Rewe-Zentral AG v. Bundesmonopolverwaltung fuer Branntwein, judgement of the ECJ of 20 February 1979, case 120/78, ECR, 1979, 649.

  26. 26.

    Respectively, Pall Corp. V P.J. Dahlhausen & Co., judgement of the ECJ of 13 December 1990, case C-238/89, ECR, 1990, I-4827; Nissan, judgement of the ECJ (Fifth Chamber) of 16 January 1992, case C-373/90, ECR, 1992, I-145; Schutzverband gegen Unwesen in der Wirtschaft e V. v. Yves Rocher GmbH, judgement of the ECJ of 18 May 1993, case C-126/91, ECR, 1993, I-102361; Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb e. V. V Clinique Laboraitoires SNC et Estée Lauder Cosmetics GmbH, judgement of the ECJ (Fifth Chamber) of 2 February 1994, case C-315/92, ECR, 1994, 1994, I-317; Mars, judgement of the Court of Justice of 6 July 1995, case C-470/93, ECR, 1995, I-1923, § 24.

  27. 27.

    Estée Lauder Cosmetics GmbH & Co. OHG v. Lancaster Group GmbH, opinion of Advocate General Fennelly delivered on 16 September 1999, C-220/98, ECR, 2000, I-117.

  28. 28.

    A promising perspective for legal scholars comes from the “Cultural Cognition Project” at Yale Law School, http://research.yale.edu/culturalcognition (accessed 6 August 2006). See also Caterina (2004, 2005).

  29. 29.

    Council Directive 84/450/EEC of 10 September 1984 relating to the approximation of the laws, regulations, and administrative provisions of the Member States concerning misleading advertising, OJ L 250, 19 September 1984, 17–20.

  30. 30.

    We think for example to the requirement of the Directive 94/47/EC of the European Parliament and the Council of 26 October 1994 on the protection of purchasers in respect of certain aspects of contracts relating to the purchase of the right to use immovable properties on a timeshare basis, Official Journal L 280, 29 October 1994, 83–87.

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Acknowledgements

A preliminary version of this paper has been presented at the Regional Consumer Law Conference organised by the International Association of Consumer Law and the Consumer Affairs Council of Malta, 16th and 17th March 2006. Conference website: http://www.mcmp.gov.mt/consumer_affairs_sem01.asp. The authors would like to thank Jack Cumming and Prof. Raffaele Caterina, University of Turin, for their insightful comments on the first draft of this article. Cristina Poncibò acknowledges a postdoctoral grant from the Lagrange Project on the “Challenge of Complex Systems,” CRT Foundation and University of Eastern Piedmont, http://www.progettolagrange.it/en.

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Correspondence to Cristina Poncibò.

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Incardona, R., Poncibò, C. The average consumer, the unfair commercial practices directive, and the cognitive revolution. J Consum Policy 30, 21–38 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10603-006-9027-9

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Keywords

  • Average consumer
  • Unfair commercial practice directive
  • Cognitive studies