Public trust in advertising has never been lower – people are fed up with being bombarded with ads and more than a little freaked out by micro-targeting. Research published on Wednesday at the UK Advertising Association’s Lead 2019 conference
was sobering stuff. As BBC journalist and panel chair Evan Davies put it, the industry was confronted with the question of whether this ‘bad image’ was due to an ‘image problem’ or simply a ‘badness problem’.
Maybe it was the nerve-jangling, adrenaline-inducing background of the Brexit rollercoaster playing out a couple of miles south in Westminster (the morning had kicked off with lots of Brexit chat from MP Graham Stuart of the Department of International Trade, surprise-former adman and deputy leader of the Labour Party and a juicy bit of insight and analysis from political columnist and broadcaster Steve Richards), but the research provoked not a weary slump of resignation but crunchy, tough-talking debate.
What the research seemed to suggest was that technology has developed apace of regulation, and that in their rush to capitalise on the short term tactical advantages offered by dodgy data and dubious targeting practices, brands risked undermining the long term effectiveness and even existence of an advertising industry. If public trust dies completely or the government decides the industry is no longer fit to self-regulate, things really would get tough.
Sara Bennison, CMO at Nationwide observed that the issue was that the industry faced an ‘evolution problem’, that regulation had focused on content so heavily, the ‘what’ of advertising, that it had failed to keep up with the changing ‘how’. The Wild West of online influencers, the stalk-y microtargeting and the revelations of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal had all eroded trust – and yet in their rush to prove ROI, push for data-driven gains and short term wins marketers and agencies had failed to see the bigger picture. “I think that ‘faster faster’, ‘target , target’, ‘show me your data’ is one of those pernicious things that will topple us long term,” she said.
There was – again reflective of the shenanigans happening down the road in Parliament – a fair bit of entertaining political footballing on display. Lindsey Clay from Thinkbox – the body for TV advertising – leapt on the debate around influencers and social media targeting to give Facebook’s Northern Europe VP Steve Hatch a bit of an onstage kicking and defend the already highly-regulated TV advertising. But she and the other speakers and panellists had some pretty constructive suggestions about how to move forward – including a mandatory levy on media spend to support the over-worked regulatory body the Advertising Standards Authority.
Another issue that emerged in the research was that the general public was miles ahead of the industry when it came to their perceptions and definitions of advertising. As the industry debates back and forth, the public seemed pretty clear. Anything that’s a form of brand communication is an ad – and they’re feeling under bombardment. It’s a sentiment that was reflected by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson in his address. Since losing over six stone and reversing his type 2 diabetes, the MP has become a crusader against sugary foods and advertising unhealthy foods to children is squarely in his sights. Even breakfast cereal packaging should be regulated as a form of advertising. “They’re billboards on table tops aimed at tiny tots,” he said, summing up that feeling of bombardment.
Curiously, the theme of public trust in advertising and the Brexit background came together. Evan Davies, in his talk about people's inbuilt bullshit detectors and the professionalisation of political communications, suggested that the vote for Brexit had been driven by the fact that people were well aware that they were being lied to by slick, slippery and inauthentic politicians, backed by their armies of media consultants and PR gurus. Adland, he suggested, should take note.
In his keynote address, Advertising Association President and CMCO of Unilever Keith Weed set out a roadmap for the industry
, laying out seven ‘deadly sins’ that the industry should avoid in order to build trust. After all, the more advertising is trusted, the more effective it can be - and the more sustainable the industry is.
But it really wasn’t all bad news. As I mentioned, the mood in the room wasn’t one of despondency but a strange, jittery dynamism. And, while the research showed that public trust was down – it also revealed that people quite liked the good stuff. Constantly repeated creative got on their nerves, but informative or truly entertaining work still got a positive reception. That’s nothing an ambitious creative agency won’t already know instinctively – but having the facts to back that up might persuade the more risk-averse, less-open minded clients to give this creativity lark a proper go.
As a creativity nerd, it was kind of heartening – one of the answers to building trust is to make better quality advertising (and more executions) and focus less on sneaky tricks and number-crunching. If you’re a (properly) creative agency or production company, I reckon that puts you in a pretty strong position.