Karen Fraser
Karen Fraser
A view from Karen Fraser

How do you solve a problem like adland's trust issue? Here are some answers

With new Ipsos research revealing that advertising executives' reputation remains below that of politicians, it's time for action.

Coming to the end of a gruelling year it's easy to feel that what is expected of an advertising executive is verging on unfair. That sense of injustice is a natural response to the results of Ipsos' annual trust poll.

For despite the seemingly neverending headlines on politicians' bad behaviour, the latest data show that the public's trust in advertising executives remains at the bottom of a long list of professions on Ipsos' annual Veracity Index.

Just 13% of the public say they trust advertising execs versus 16% who say they trust politicians.

And yet, you and I know plenty of good people in advertising and they are, by and large, outgoing, curious, great company and you happily trust them with your business.

Why then does the public think we're an unreliable and mendacious bunch of chancers? Why – despite best efforts to fix the trust problem – does ad execs' reputation remain so low?

The sustainable alternative

At a time when the climate crisis is at the top of the agenda, it's difficult to ignore the stereotype that advertising is simply about selling people more stuff that they don't need.

A stereotype reflected by Ipsos' research, which shows that many people think that advertising executives make people want things they don't need – half (49%) of the UK public think ad execs promote unnecessary consumption.

It's important to recognise that cynicism will get us nowhere; when it comes to the climate crisis, inaction is no longer an option. Purpose and saving the planet are at the top of the consumer agenda, but just one in 10 thinks an ad exec is "someone who will change the world for the better".

The public want advertising to "stop encouraging people to want things they don't need" and they say they want to see ads demonstrating more respect for people and the planet (33%). This needs to be something that people see both in ads and their own interactions with brands. If people see one thing in an ad, but experience something different for themselves, there is room for further mistrust.

Great expectations

This desire for the industry to do better is evident across the research and compels us to truly examine what it is the public trusts the industry to do.

Almost half of those polled (47%) expected ad execs to "create interesting or entertaining advertisements". They judge ad execs on the ads they produce. Are we still delivering on their expectations, and is a failure to deliver fully a big part of the problem?

To get under the skin of this issue for the first time, and exclusively for Campaign, Ipsos added questions to our regular poll of the UK public. Any respondent who said that they didn't trust ad execs was then asked why, and what, if anything, would help.

The findings revealed there is hope for ad execs' tarnished reputations and a chance for them to regain some of the respect and appreciation enjoyed in the 1980s heydays, when the public gave advertising 80% approval ratings, compared with current scores of about 30%.

The main issues are around ad executives' motivation. People understand that the client pays and that ad execs are paid to tell one side of the story, and many people think ad execs will bend the truth to do so.

Mistrust in advertising execs is widespread, but the over-55s trust ad execs the least (6%) while the young give ad execs a much better rep (23%). Trend data on advertising has always shown this pattern. People tend to start off relatively approving of advertising and, as they age, typically they like advertising less.

With increasing age also comes greater worldliness, and this is reflected in the public's view of ad execs' role in business. Some 64% of people polled said they mistrust ad execs because they are paid to tell one side of the story. This rises to 71% of people over the age of 55.

People get wise to the way the business of advertising works and they want to see evidence of more control over what ad execs can say, and to be reassured that it is truthful.

Most people wanted to see "enforcement of legal, decent, honest and truthful rules" (44%). To trust ad execs more, they need to see evidence that the rules exist and are being applied.

There is some consolation for the beleaguered ad exec as the research underlined that the lack of trust in them is nothing personal. Only 9% of those polled believed that ad execs are "unlikeable people". Yet to solve this crisis we need to take personal responsibility for changing the narrative for the industry at large. With headlines on "The Great Resignation" continuing to dominate, solving adland's trust crisis will be key to attracting the next generation of talent into the industry.

A recipe for more trust in ad execs is an industry creating more charming and engaging ads, that are fairly monitored, promote the most sustainable options, and contain less bolt-on purpose, and more built-in fun.

How to fix the trust crisis

  • Only 9% of people polled said "nothing would help", so the vast majority think there's room for improvement
  • People need to see evidence that rules exist, and they are being applied fairly
  • They see signs of over-consumption and they believe advertising contributes to the problems of climate change, so they want this to be moderated
  • And they trust ad execs to make funny and interesting ads. Tools like Ipsos' global CreativeSpark predicts attention and emotional reactions to create better ads

Ipsos results

Top answers in Ipsos' survey (sample of 1,000, UK nationally representative sample, conducted 26-28 November 2021):

People don't trust ad execs because:

  1. They are paid to tell one side of story
  2. The lie or bend the truth
  3. They promote unnecessary consumption

What do people expect of ad execs?

  1. To create interesting and entertaining ads
  2. They are self-motivated and greedy
  3. They are annoying and arrogant

Which if any of following would improve opinion of ad execs?

  1. Evidence of enforcement of the legal, decent, honest and truthful rules
  2. Stop encouraging people to want things they don't need
  3. Be more respectful of people and the planet
  4. Less advertising in general
  5. More funny and entertaining ads

Karen Fraser is senior director at Ipsos who works as an advisor to the International Advertising Association UK. She was awarded an MBE in 2017 for services to the advertising industry, equality and diversity