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Stephen Woodford 

Why the public’s trust in advertising is vital for our industry

Why the public’s trust in advertising is vital for our industry

We risk increased regulatory pressure if our industry lets the public's trust in advertising slip

Three years ago, the Advertising Association made a clarion call to rebuild public trust in advertising. It came after findings from the industry’s thinktank, Credos, showed public trust was in decline, with trust in the industry at 50% in 2018, significantly lower in comparison to other industries, with the advertising industry at the bottom of the pack.

Action had to be taken. Along with the IPA and ISBA, the Advertising Association’s members formed a Trust Working Group to deliver and implement a ‘Trust Action Plan’ to arrest the long-term decline of public trust in advertising. The Plan has pushed awareness of the drivers of public trust over the past three years: from the positive – advertising’s creativity and how advertising can support social change, to the negative – reducing bombardment and excessive ad frequency.

So, where are we now?

We can report new research showing public trust in advertising has increased 25% since its 2015 low point. While it is hugely encouraging to see signs of improvement, this is only in line with increases seen in other industries.

Some of the Credos findings are evergreen. The public continues to respond best to high quality advertising that entertains and engages. As such, the quality of advertising remains the most important positive driver of public trust and the evidence proves investment in trusted advertising provides better returns on campaigns and better long-term value for the brands they support.

Commitment to the positive impact of advertising on daily life is also important, and the social contribution of advertising is the second most significant driver of public trust. The promotion of public health messaging during the pandemic was cited in this latest research with the public as an important example of advertising’s potential to make a positive social contribution, as was the steps we have taken to portray a more inclusive nation.

However, maintaining the public’s trust is a continuous and changing challenge. With regulatory challenges ahead – from government reviews of online advertising and scrutiny of sectors including HFSS and gambling, we should not underestimate how important it is that we are trusted. We risk increased regulatory pressure if we let this slip.

We cannot and should not be complacent. Our investment in finding out more about the drivers of trust and distrust is key to the next step in the rebuilding process. We know more about the public’s trust and distrust of advertising than arguably any other advertising economy around the world, thanks to the work of Credos.

The public are still increasingly concerned about the boundaries of advertising in our lives. While concerns around bombardment have diminished slightly since 2018, it remains the biggest driver of distrust.

Younger consumers in our research now tell us that misleading and invasive advertising techniques (often scams or fraud) are their primary reason for negative perceptions towards advertising – and it’s also a real concern to older people. If we are to continue to rebuild public trust, we must listen to what the public is telling us and what levers are already at our disposal.

Better awareness of the Advertising Standards Authority is one major lever we can pull. Currently, awareness of the ASA is low, with only 12% of people spontaneously aware of the organisation.

Increasing public knowledge of advertising’s effective regulatory system – which works hard to protect the public from misleading, harmful or offensive ads, wherever they appear – is a tangible way to improve trust. The results of the ASA’s advertising campaign in Scotland prove just this.

Strikingly, those who recalled seeing the test ads were almost two-thirds (64%) more likely to trust the advertising industry than those who hadn’t seen the campaign – and 50% more likely to trust most ads.

We now have an opportunity to take what we have learned over the past three years and communicate it via the most powerful driver of rebuilding trust: the awareness of the ASA. The principles of our self-regulatory body sit at the heart of why consumers trust advertising – enshrined in ‘Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful’.

Everyone in our industry should consider what they can do to support the next iteration of the ASA’s campaign as we roll it out UK-wide, as well as reflect on what we can do to address our systemic weaknesses, and most importantly amplify our strengths.

Our mission to rebuild public trust in advertising is ongoing because the public’s trust in our work isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.

Stephen Woodford is CEO of the Advertising Association

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