Fri, 08 Mar 2019 16:30:14 GMT
In an age dominated by lies, damned lies and fake statistics, is there any room left for the truth? And if there is, could brands be best placed to drag us back into the light?
If we can bear to wind the clock back to June 2016 for a second, the Advertising Standards Authority received 374 complaints about the '£350m a week' slogan that adorned Vote Leave’s campaign bus. And yet, they were powerless to take any action over this, or a series of other misleading, inaccurate and discriminatory ads, because political messages in non-broadcast media are exempt from the advertising code.
Now, as the old saying goes, it takes a bullshitter to know one and given carte blanche, advertisers might well choose to spout a never-ending stream of codswallop in order to shift more product. From time to time, commercial organisations have a bloody good run at it, hoping they’ll get away with eyebrow-raising claims such as 'Lucky Strike protects your throat against irritation and coughs'. Or the lovely bit of proto-Project Fear from brain training mobile app Lumosity, who claimed their digital magic could prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s (which resulted in a very analogue $2m fine).
And this is precisely why we operate in a tightly regulated industry. Give us an inch and we’ll take a mile. Hence, the CAP Code, which reminds us that every piece of communication we produce “…must not materially mislead, make obvious exaggerations or even omit material information.” Before submitting work for publication, marketers must submit documentary evidence to prove claims “consumers are likely to regard as objective”.
But let’s look beyond the rules and regulations for a second. Can brands actually harness the harness and turn this position of restraint to their advantage? What happens when you build expertise and authority over time? Unsurprisingly, people tend to trust you more.
Global studies now suggest that businesses are now level-pegging with NGOs as the most trusted institutions and significantly ahead of governments and the media. This runs counter to almost 70% of the British public who say they distrust advertising messages.
However, with 73% of respondents in the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer worried about the weaponisation of fake news and trust in the 'digital gangsters' of social media dipping to an all-time low, people are increasingly looking to big business to take the lead on social change rather than waiting for governments to catch up.
Perhaps this behaviour is the preserve of particular sectors and categories? There are parallels with the choppy waters of brand purpose here. Ultimately, it comes down to earning the right to be a trustworthy source. Typically, we’ve seen this emerging more in the B2B sector, where industries have access to a wealth of expertise at their disposal and have been more resistant to social media. But it’s not too much of a stretch to see Philips as a trusted source of healthcare information for consumers. Or for adidas to be a trusted source of fitness and training guides.
In a speech at ISBA’s annual conference (5th March), Keith Weed, president of the Advertising Association, spoke of the dangers that the persistent erosion of trust presents the industry. “It might seem all doom and gloom. But we are in a situation now where we can grasp the nettle of history, we can address these issues. Great advertising is the best builder of trust. We need to get back to doing great advertising.”
Despite the code of conduct, brands have a long way to go before the tide of distrust in advertising is turned. But with brands having to compete in a world dominated by false claims, they might be best placed to deliver the truth.
Digby Spencer-Lewis is executive director, content at Iris