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Attention all crappy advertisers

31 Jan 2020  |  David Pidgeon 
Attention all crappy advertisers

A year ago the ad industry was force fed some uncomfortable news during the Ad Association's annual Lead conference: public favourability towards advertising had hit an all time low.

A Credos-led study revealed that many people found ads to be repetitive, obtrusive and irrelevant, and so the long-term decline in favourability (it's been tanking for years, but seems to have got worse when the Internet happened) was unlikely to be reversed without some kind of industry-wide intervention.

A Trust Working Group was hastily formed with members of UK’s biggest advertisers, agencies, media owners, trade associations and tech platforms, and the news sparked debate, a re-appraisal of strategy, and ultimately the embracing of initiatives such as the IAB's Gold Standard.

This week, at Lead 2020, AA president Keith Weed announced a new three-year strategy to extend the work in this area.

'Responsibility, Trust and Growth' is the result of a six-month consultation with industry leaders from across the market and will now dominate the AA's future work.

"Rebuilding public trust in advertising is at the heart of my tenure as president," Weed said on Thursday.

"And ensuring advertising is responsible is a crucial factor in achieving this goal; the two things are symbiotically linked.

"Our new mission is deliberate in its objective to value the importance of responsible advertising to the people we serve, the society we operate in, the businesses that rely on our services for growth and to the UK economy including the many jobs we help to create."

Since last year's minor bombshell it has been clear that all is not lost - there is still much that people like about advertising; from being entertained, its potential for social contribution, its value exchange for content and services and so on.

What the AA and its members want to do now is promote the positives and limit the negatives, and is rallying industry to help it on this mission.

This all seems sensible, and when bound together by the work of the ICO to clean up the open programmatic ad market, the general trend towards brand purpose and social responsibility, and the shift towards sustainable economies and so on, feels like something that could have a tangible impact.

However, one can't help but feel that the target audience (crappy advertisers) is missing.

At Lead 2020, held at the QEII centre overlooking Westminster, there were hundreds of top-level advertisers, agencies and media owners. But these are the people already delivering best practice.

How does the industry influence the long-tail - perhaps the big brands of tomorrow - and get them to adhere to the (largely unspecified and constantly changing) 'rules'?

Our hunch is that many of the complaints against advertising will be contained both online and aimed at smaller businesses.

The advertising club is much, much bigger than it used to be, and crudely (and snobbishly) explained, any old riff-raff is now a member. It's like John Lewis is stood at the bar with a pop-up banner for knock-off Viagra and everyone thinking they're mates.

One senior ad boss said after the event that we should therefore hope for a "cascade" effect from the top downwards to ensure better standards are set by anyone wanting to join the club. But, as in economics, trickle-down theory is problematic in that it only really works in theory.

That means the media owners have a much bigger role to play than in the past - setting out better guidelines to best practice and insisting on basic rules such as frequency capping.

It also means - as was teased on Thursday - promoting the work of the Advertising Standards Authority better to get the message out that they will tackle any ad that strays from the line. This is to be trialled in Scotland later this year.

Also interesting - and something that will be required to deal with a hard-to-police online long-tail, is the introduction of monitoring technology. The ASA announced today it is using it to watch for dodgy botox ads on social media.

Lastly, this whole conversation starts to open up some subjectively complex issues for the market as there is also the problem of deciding what 'responsible' actually looks like.

For example, on the media owner side, The Guardian's decision this week to turn away fossil fuel advertisers makes the publisher look 'more responsible' than it was the previous week, and makes it look similarly 'more responsible' than other publishers. But not everyone would agree (particularly generationally) and it's a difficult comparison to make.

Yet whatever is happening, the dial is shifting and with it consumer sentiment. If adland wants to regain the trust, it will have to keep a close watch.

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