Visual Gut Punch: Persuasion, Emotion, and the Constitutional Meaning of Graphic Disclosure

58 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2013 Last revised: 23 Apr 2014


The ability of government to “nudge” with information mandates, or merely to inform consumers of risks, is circumscribed by First Amendment interests that have been poorly articulated. New graphic cigarette warning labels supplied courts with the first opportunity to assess the informational interests attending novel forms of product disclosures. The D.C. Circuit enjoined them as unconstitutional, compelled by a narrative that the graphic labels converted government from objective informer to ideological persuader, shouting its warning to manipulate consumer decisions. This interpretation will leave little room for graphic disclosure and has already been used to invalidate SEC textual disclosure requirements and may soon put an end to FDA country-of-origin labeling for meat products.

Graphic warning and the increasing reliance on regulation-by-disclosure present new free speech quandaries related to consumer autonomy, state normativity, and speaker liberty. This article examines the distinct goals of product disclosure requirements and how those goals may serve to vindicate, or to frustrate, listener interests. It argues that many disclosures, and especially warnings, are necessarily both normative and informative, expressing value along with fact. It is not the existence of a norm that raises constitutional concern, but rather the insistence on a controversial norm. Turning to the means of disclosure, the article examines how emotional and graphic communication might change the constitutional calculus. Using autonomy theory and the communications research on speech processing, it concludes that disclosures do not bypass reason simply by reaching for the heart. If large graphic labels are unconstitutional, it will be because of undue burden on the speaker, not because they are emotionally powerful.

This article makes the following distinct contributions to the compelled commercial speech literature: Critiques the leading precedent, Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, from a consumer autonomy standpoint; Brings to bear empirical communications research on questions of facticity and rationality in emotional and graphic communications; Teases apart and distinguishes among various free speech dangers and contributions of commercial disclosure mandates with a view towards informing policy, law and research.

Keywords: First Amendment, advertising, information policy, disclosure requirements, government speech, administrative law, commercial speech, communications, paternalism, emotions, graphic

JEL Classification: K23, K33

Suggested Citation

Goodman, Ellen P., Visual Gut Punch: Persuasion, Emotion, and the Constitutional Meaning of Graphic Disclosure. 99 Cornell L. Rev. 513 (2014), Available at SSRN:

Ellen P. Goodman (Contact Author)

Rutgers Law ( email )

217 N. 5th Street
Camden, NJ 08102
United States
856-225-6393 (Phone)
856-225-6516 (Fax)

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