A view from Mike Colling

Nurofen, erosion of trust and a headache for advertisers

The ban against a Nurofen ad comes at a bad time for trust in the industry, says MC&C's Mike Collings.

This week the ASA ruled to ban a Nurofen ad that claimed different painkillers could target different types of pain. Something that was without truth, and instead a marketing construct designed to con consumers into paying over the odds for the same product. 

A ruling like this comes at a bad time for trust. Both in the UK and across the pond, we’re seeing people disillusioned by politicians and brands alike. With Brexit in swing, Trump in the running, and major brands like VW and Nurofen falling from grace, it’s evident that we’re on the brink of tarnishing our ability to influence. 

Advertising dishonestly not only dents the future of our entire industry, but also has an immediate, negative impact on specific brands and sectors. Nurofen is an example for the pharmaceutical industry, but look to the sugar tax. How many businesses are based on selling a lifestyle that’s massively out of step with where consumers are at? We know consumers want to be healthier and kinder to the environment, so we should be changing business models rather than advertising dishonestly or trying to sell them something they don’t want – or worse still, something that doesn’t even exist.

More bad news for advertising came this week in the form of a new report from the Charity Commission, which revealed that trust in charities was badly eroded last year. In fact, trust in them has dropped by 10% year on year, with 61% of adults having less trust in charities than they did a year ago. A lack of transparency over how charities are run, where money goes, and high-pressure funding techniques were at the core of this drop in confidence. And naturally, this had a big impact on fundraising results. 

This is a good blueprint for what’s wrong with advertising as a whole. Brands often aren’t clear enough about what they are selling and what consumers are buying. And we’re often too heavy handed in getting our message across. This should be a wakeup call for the advertising industry, reminding us to respect our audience and put them at the centre of what we do. Our creative must be honest and compassionate, and the way we place it should avoid irritation and intrusion. Yes, the digital age and globalisation has changed our world and in many ways made it more competitive, but we shouldn’t forget the old rules, as in a world of mass media, they ring truer than ever.

If we look ahead, we’re setting a precedent for the public to become increasingly cynical, and much less forgiving when a brand is caught lying. It’s a threat to a number of industries. Look to broadband. Everyone knows they don’t deliver claimed speeds, so regulation – and therefore public opinion – will catch up with them. In the travel sector, train companies in particular are already seeing virtually any positive claim they make negated by a record of poor service and punctuality. Retail is under threat too. Constant "sales" just don’t wash in a global market where consumers can find better prices at the touch of a button. Against this backdrop, it’s more important than ever for brands to stand for something meaningful.

So what’s the good news? The fix is fairly simple. If we want to win consumers back, we have to firstly respect them in all our communications, and secondly stand for something that speaks to them. Then stick to it. To quote a truly modern brand in BuzzFeed’s CEO and founder, Jonah Peretti: "We don't run cigarette ads because they are hazardous to our health, and we won't accept Trump ads for the exact same reason". Quite. 

Mike Colling is the founder and CEO of MC&C