Impressions and conversions: how can advertisers gain the public’s trust?

The industry has never been renowned for its credibility, but certain online practices, if allowed to continue proliferating unchecked, could erode what little confidence remains in its activities

Things have come to a pretty pass for your profession when research reveals that consumers have less faith in its output than they do in that of estate agents, journalists and even politicians. An Ipsos Mori poll in October 2020 found that a mere 13% of UK adults trusted advertising executives to be truthful, compared with 16% in the case of government ministers. 

Public trust in advertising has actually increased in absolute terms since hitting rock bottom seven years ago, if studies by the Advertising Association’s think-tank, Credos, are anything to go by. In 2015 – the industry’s lowest point for credibility on record – its researchers found that 44% of consumers trusted (to at least some extent) what advertisers were saying. By 2021, the proportion had risen to 55%. Despite this, all the other industries used by Credos for comparative purposes in its studies saw bigger improvements in trust over the same period, which means that advertising has fallen further behind the pack.

As the Advertising Association admits in the accompanying research report, Rebuilding Public Trust in UK Advertising: “All in all, there is unmistakable evidence to show that advertising has a clear public trust problem.”

What is the industry getting wrong in particular? And how can consumers’ mistrust of advertising, and the brands it’s selling, be addressed?

“There are many reasons why trust in advertising is so low,” observes Rik Haslam, executive creative partner at brand consultancy Brandpie. 

One factor, he says, is something that has in the past made advertising so effective: its ability to appeal to our lifestyle aspirations. As the Covid crisis drags on and war rages in Europe once again, the UK economy is unlikely to be recovering from the shock of the pandemic at the pace that many had hoped for. With inflation taking hold, life isn’t looking as rosy to Britons as the ad men and women would have us believe. Glossy adverts that hint at a utopian future for buyers of a given brand are unlikely to find a receptive audience among the millions of people who’ve started worrying about how to make ends meet as the costs of essentials such as food, fuel and energy spiral.

Another development that’s been instrumental in eroding credibility is the fact that consumers are being tracked more than ever online by advertisers, which are bombarding them with what Haslam calls lowest-common-denominator messaging. 

“We’ve been body-shamed, mis-sold to, under-represented, spammed and pestered to the point of almost complete cynicism,” he says.

Mis-selling is a serious concern, particularly for businesses operating in sectors such as finance and healthcare, where trust takes decades to accumulate and days to lose. 

“The online advertising ecosystem is very complex, so consumers don’t understand what’s happening,” notes Robin Karakash, senior marketing director for Europe at Mozilla, which owns the Firefox web browser. 

This factor makes them more susceptible to scams and less likely to make the connection between the data they divulge and the advertising that’s served up to them. That’s a concern for businesses too. For example, Starling Bank has pulled its paid advertising from both Facebook and Instagram until Meta can demonstrate that it’s doing enough to prevent fraudulent ads from appearing in users’ social media feeds. 

If you know that you can complain to an authority that will enforce compliance with the rules, you feel much more secure

In a blog post published in January, the bank’s founder and CEO, Anne Boden, wrote: “We want to protect our customers and our brand integrity… We can no longer pay to advertise on a platform alongside scammers who are going after the savings of our customers and those of other banks.”

Meta has stressed that it is “dedicating significant resources to tackling this industry-wide issue on and off our platforms”, but it remains to be seen whether such efforts will meet with Boden’s satisfaction.

Meanwhile, the Advertising Association believes that the profession needs to focus on producing more high-quality adverts that consumers find both entertaining and informative. Its CEO, Stephen Woodford, says: “The things that drive trust in advertising now are the same things that drove trust 30 years ago. Ideally, all ads should be engaging and contain something useful.” 

But that is far from the case, of course. And the increase in the volume of content that could be counted as advertising has muddied the waters. From hyper-targeted pop-up ads on websites to undeclared adverts by social media influencers, so-called suspicious advertising is another key factor damaging the public’s perceptions of the industry, according to Credos. 

The UK has a stringent set of advertising regulations, but these are not always enforced to the extent that they could be. Changing that could be key to rebuilding trust, according to Woodford, who says: “One key attribute we have in the UK industry, which is almost like a jewel in the crown, is the Advertising Standards Authority.” 

Making people more aware of the authority and its enforcement powers – including its ability to warn influencers against entering undisclosed commercial agreements with brands – has a demonstrably positive effect on public trust in the industry. 

The Advertising Association recently ran a “test campaign to promote the fact that the Advertising Standards Authority regulates advertising everywhere you see it”, Woodford explains. Researchers surveyed the target audience and found that its average level of trust in the industry had risen by 50% after viewing the campaign. 

“When you know that there’s a policeman present, you’re reassured that someone is there checking,” he says. “If you know that you can complain to an authority that will enforce compliance with the rules, you feel much more secure.” 

While such knowledge gives reason for optimism about the future of advertising, the industry has much work to do, stresses Haslam, who suggests that many companies need to review their practices. The rise of big-data analytics has made the industry a duller place. It’s time to restore some much-needed creativity and personality to its output, he argues, echoing Woodford’s assessment.

“Brands need to play a positive role in society to regain the confidence of consumers. We all like an ad that entertains us,” Haslam says, recommending that they try to channel the quick wit of an advert for The Economist or the “bizarre whimsy” of the Cockney gecko campaign used by US car insurer Geico. 

If digital advertising doesn’t learn how to engage audiences in such a way soon, “it will become ever more annoying and erode trust further”, he argues, adding that companies also need to be more purposeful in their choice of media. 

“Programmatic advertising is incredibly efficient, but it’s also incredibly opaque. It can damage the reputation of your brand if it is placed in unsavoury, inappropriate or unsuitable contexts,” Haslam warns. “On the other hand, showing up in credible, trusted environments can help to create positive associations for your brand. With this in mind, try to avoid the temptation to drown consumers in a deluge of cheap ads. Be more considered in how you take your brand to market.” 

If the industry as a whole can follow those principles, there’s a good chance that it can creep up the league table of consumer trust. Becoming more credible than a politician isn’t too much to ask, surely?