Facebook’s Steve Hatch was forced to defend the company from an attack by Thinkbox chief executive Lindsey Clay on the role digital platforms play in damaging trust in advertising.
The pair were on a panel at the Advertising Association’s Lead conference today that followed the presentation of research by Credos that found trust in advertising had sunk to a record low.
Asked by chair Evan Davis whether advertising had an "image problem" or a "badness problem" that could not be solved simply through better communication, Clay said: "We should listen to what the consumer says – ordinary people are telling us it is bad and we have a problem."
In a blistering attack on the tech platforms, she said: "There is advertising being served around inappropriate and illegal content – they’re playing fast and loose with privacy, they don’t clear advertising beforehand, they don’t remind advertisers about the [CAP] Code they ought to be sticking to."
But the Advertising Standards Authority did not have the resources to deal with these problems, Clay claimed, because tech platforms were not contributing funding to the organisation in proportion to their share of the ad market.
She called the rise in complaints to the ASA "a pretty stark story", saying it had doubled its number of interventions in the past year and had banned or changed 50% more ads. Half of all ads complained about were online, she added: "So they are drowning in a tidal wave of complaints about online ads."
Clay continued: "We’ve always prided ourselves on this self-regulatory system that works really effectively, but actually it’s creaking at the seams. I’d look to the tech giants in particular to help take responsibility for that."
Hatch, vice-president northern Europe at Facebook, disputed that Facebook and others did not contribute their fair share of funding and pointed out that most of the increase in complaints were about single vendors and web pages, which he called "hard to police".
He acknowledged both the tech sector and Facebook still needed to improve, but took the opportunity to point to steps Facebook had taken to improve trust. "We don’t take payday loans on Facebook platforms at all and that’s been true for the last six years," Hatch said. "We have never allowed images of idealised body imagery.
"The reason we don’t do that is because people really don’t like it. If we’re going to think about how we act as industry in protecting vulnerable groups, well, let’s make sure people feel we’re on their side. That’s up to us to act as an industry but also as individual companies."
Also on the panel were IPA director-general Paul Bainsfair, Nationwide chief marketing officer Sara Bennison and Direct Line marketing director Mark Evans.
As it worked to improve trust, one of the priorities of the industry should be to "let people know there’s a policeman on the beat", Bainsfair said, adding: "The awareness of the ASA has dropped and we need to tell people every ad must be legal, decent and honest, and give them a sense that they can complain if they need to."
Evans pointed to the problem of bombardment – people feeling like they are exposed to too much advertising and the same ads too many times (even after they have already purchased the item being advertised).
He explained: "It’s true that ads are overserved, and we can take it away from an emotional conversation to a rational and economic one, because advertisers are wasting money overserving ads, because there isn’t currently a framework in place to recognise when you are."
Bennsion, meanwhile, said that many of the industry’s problems stemmed from short-termism: "The danger is some of these things are not things that are going to affect your sales tomorrow; they’re cumulative.
"That push and that 'faster, faster', 'target, target', 'data, data', showing the results instantly – it actually does a lot of pernicious and dangerous things that will topple us if we don’t take a longer-term perspective."