Trust: sinners, saints and Terry Pratchett; and Nick Clegg's real job

04 Feb 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
Trust: sinners, saints and Terry Pratchett; and Nick Clegg's real job

Picture credit: Bronac McNeill

A new report shows a public crisis of trust caused by a host of advertising sins. Dominic Mills picks them apart in the search for a cure. Plus: Facebook regulation and a Super Bowl alternative.

I’m not a big fan of Terry Pratchett although I recognise he is, well, a secular saint to many. But there’s a quote from Carpe Jugulum that I like.

“Sin...is when you treat people like things.”

Last week’s AA LEAD conference put trust - not for the first time, and it ain’t going to end soon either - front and centre of the issues adland must deal with. Here’s Mediatel’s story on the subject. There are other issues too, HFSS principally as Tom Watson brilliantly articulated, but trust is the big one.

At the heart of it is the ongoing and now near-precipitate decline in favourability towards advertising amongst the public. Credos’ Karen Fraser charted its decline in a picture I found alarming.

On the chart itself, there are two points worth noting.

One, broadly speaking, favourability was at its peak in the mass-media era. Some might say this was a golden period of creativity, some that this was a function of the limited number of media channels available to advertisers.

The second, again generalising, is that the rot sets in more seriously around 2009 (bar a curious uptick around 2015) and has continued since. Hmmm...2009...well that was the period of the rise and rise and rise of Facebook and Google. This is not, however, a duopoly bash; that was also the period of the financial crash, which may have had an effect.

You can read Fraser’s analysis of the causes here, informed by going out and talking to people (yes, kinda old-fashioned, but it works). I’ll paraphrase it, but essentially she identifies six problems or sins.

Sin #1, ‘bombardment’, which translates as the sheer volume of ads to which we are exposed.

Sin #2, repetition — i.e. seeing the same ad over and over.

Sin #3, obtrusiveness — which I take to mean getting in the way and/or buggering-up the user experience.

Sin #4, irrelevance — meaning not just any lack of targeting, but also an poor execution or a failure to align with context or environment.

Sin #5, intrusiveness — ‘stop chasing me everywhere I go.’

And Sin #6, a catch-all into which you can put manipulation, opacity (including when is an ad an ad), ads targeting vulnerable groups and in sensitive sectors (like gambling, pay-day loans and, possibly HFSS), and body image idealisation.

(Not much mention, by the way, of the ASA’s hobbyhorse of harmful gender stereotyping.)

Now what’s interesting to me about this is that Sins #1-3 and #5 are products of the digital era, while Sin #4 is supposed to be rendered obsolete by the rise of adtech.

But, to simplify, they are all what you might call media-side sins, rather than having much to do with the ads themselves.

But, to acknowledge Sir Terry, all sins have a root cause: treating people as ‘things’.

Quite rightly, in his capacity as president of the AA, Keith Weed says adland must fix these problems in order to rebuild consumer trust. It’s no quick fix, he warned: “trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback.”

Right now, it feels like the horses are galloping away.

Let’s start with #1. Is that solvable? I can’t really see how. It’s a function of almost infinite supply, cheap-as-chips or PPC inventory, and publishers so desperate for cash they overload their pages with ads.

#2 is about frequency capping. Some of the repetition may no doubt be a function of #1, but if ad tech is about pinpoint accuracy and all that, how come it can’t do frequency capping? Answer: because the system itself is failing. Still, here’s Unilever trying to do something about it.

#3 is a product of the modern era. But just because you can reach people anywhere, doesn’t mean you should.

#4 — irrelevance — I find fascinating on a number of levels. Essentially, it’s about targeting or, to be more specific, bad targeting. The industry is obsessed with personalisation, and holds it up as the holy grail. The tech is supposed to help. But, even if you think it’s a good thing - and the Guardian’s Hamish Nicklin must feel he is alone on his mission to warn against it — it’s a puzzle that the industry is so bad at it.

The only way it might improve is through more data, but is that really the direction of travel for consumers? After all, they are becoming more, not less, concerned about privacy. So I don’t see this conundrum being resolved anytime soon, or unless marketers focus less on personalisation and more on context and environment.

#5 — intrusiveness. This one seems to me to be driven by some of the factors we see in #1, #3 and #5 and derived from the ubiquity of inventory, opportunity and data.

#6 — manipulation, opacity, vulnerability targeting and so on. I think we can summarise this as bad behaviour generally, or to borrow from a damning comment from one of Fraser’s Credos interviewees — “Is there any ethical foundation in advertising?” — the answer seems to be that the industry, or parts of it sufficient to tar everyone else in it, has either lost it or never had it.

Of course we shouldn’t give up, and thus the AA is absolutely right to make this a critical part of its mission. But to succeed, it will need patience, a strong will and fortitude.

Oh yeah, and to treat people as people, not data points and target shooting.


And Nick Clegg’s real job is...

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Sort of. After Steve Hatch’s disastrous interview with the BBC, covered in this column last week, Facebook sent out the big gun, aka Cleggy.

Here he is being given a hard time last week by BBC media editor Amol Rajan.

The key point I picked up from this was Clegg’s tacit admission that regulation was coming. This marks a step forward, coming as it does after years of denial, obfuscation and Facebook closing its ears and eyes and going ‘la la la’.

And then it dawned on me. Clegg’s real job as vice president of global affairs and communications, is to manage that regulation, shaping it in such a way that it is least harmful to Facebook.

This is a big task. Regulating the tech giants is immensely complex, more so than any previous regulatory tasks. Who does the regulating? What powers will they have and what, exactly, will it cover? And what sanctions will the regulators have? It won’t work on a country-by-country basis, so if not global, they will need transnational powers. That requires multinational cooperation, in a world that is currently moving away from such organisations.

If he chooses, and if he stays the course, Clegg will have a job for life.


Your Super Bowl alternative

I feel as though I’ve failed you by not watching last night’s US Super Bowl game, not for the contest itself (victory to the New England Patriots) but for the ads.

Too late on a Sunday night, bad timing for the column, and I’m just not that into the game.

By way of alternative, let me introduce this meta Super Bowl parody ad — for napkins — produced by Stephen Colbert of the Late Show. Watch out for the golden retriever puppy whose best friend is a crippled, wheelchair-bound penguin.

Marvellous. Every cliche thoroughly milked and debunked.

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