Advertising is facing a crisis of public trust: here's what we should do
A view from Karen Fraser

Advertising is facing a crisis of public trust: here's what we should do

If we as an industry are to address the decline in trust, we need to see past our preconceptions.

Does advertising have a reputational problem, or does it have the reputation it deserves? That was the stark question put to industry leaders by Evan Davis at the Advertising Association’s annual summit Lead.

The AA has some authority to answer this question, because it has been measuring public sentiment towards advertising for more than 50 years, and those measures show that favourability has been in almost unbroken long-term decline.

In fact, since 2015, public trust in the advertising industry has fallen below both the energy and banking sectors, putting it in last place out of all the industries measured by advertising’s think tank, Credos. It seems fair to say the public does not think our collective output is worthy of respect.

Whenever I present these trends, people look understandably dismayed. For them, as practitioners, it’s something of a shock to learn that not all advertisements are as good as those their own company produces.

Often they may question the importance of the numbers by asking: "Does it really matter if public favourability to all advertising is going down?" After all, it’s true to say our industry awards events aren’t short of lauded winners, each vying to show how creatively effective they have been. The trouble is that they are the best of the best and, as such, they are far less likely to contribute towards the growing disaffection of the British public.

In response, I would say: if we want to hold our heads up high, then yes, it matters. If we want to attract bright new talent to our industry, then yes, it matters. And if we want people to like what we do, then absolutely yes, it matters.

So, what’s going wrong?

Clearly as industry leaders, we need to know what’s amiss so we can set about fixing it. However, as in any industry, we can sometimes find ourselves trapped in a bubble – one in which we assume the advertising effects we intended will be dutifully felt by recipients of our messages. As in politics, occupying such a bubble can prove to be both misguided and dangerous.

If we as an industry are to address the decline, we need to see past our preconceptions and understand what fails to win our audiences’ trust. Credos, in partnership with independent research agency Craft, embarked on an ambitious two-stage research project to do just that. Employing a range of techniques, we aimed to get as unfiltered a view of people’s perceptions of advertising as possible.

The research reveals that, despite the long-term decline in favourability, very strong opinions on advertising are quite rare, with most people viewing it as a "good thing with downsides". It also showed us that it’s easier to be annoyed by advertising than it is to be concerned by it – that is, advertising is more likely to be deemed a minor nuisance than a genuine cause for concern.

This isn’t to say that advertising is incapable of causing concern. For example, many people cited advertisements for specific products or services, such as alcohol, payday loans and gambling, as a cause of concern. In many cases, this concern was rooted in personal experience of drinking or gambling problems, or those who are financially insecure and therefore at particular risk. 

Advertising’s irritations, meanwhile, are more widespread and impact public perceptions of advertising more greatly.

One such irritant is that of bombardment – a feeling that is driven by the overall amount of advertising and its often-repetitive nature.

People tell us they feel advertising is "absolutely everywhere" and they feel the volume is being ratcheted up. This is a generalised feeling towards all forms of commercial communications – no one medium, channel or platform stands alone on blame. The research showed that bombardment has a greater impact on overall favourability and trust than any other negative issue.

Although these issues pose a threat to the long-term health of the advertising industry, there is also more to be done in terms of enhancing advertising’s benefits.

In fact, an individual’s appreciation of advertising’s benefits has a greater bearing on their overall opinion of advertising than their concerns with its downsides. Many people praised advertising for its ability to inform, entertain and promote social good, so it is important for us to remain mindful of the value advertising can bring to people’s lives. But first, we must get our house in order.

The way back

While working our way back up from the bottom of the pile may feel like a daunting task, and while it’s true that adland has its fair share of issues to address, it is important that we as an industry recognise the positives as well as the negatives. If we play to our strengths, and if we address our weaknesses, we may yet be able to tip the balance of trust back in our favour.

At ISBA’s annual conference on 5 March, Keith Weed, Unilever’s communications chief and president of the AA, will discuss a new white paper outlining how we can turn the tide of public sentiment by mobilising the advertising industry into action to protect its own long-term health. Join him if you want to make the future of advertising more sustainable and protect our collective future.

Karen Fraser is director of Credos