A fair exchange?

01 Mar 2019  |  Tess Alps 
A fair exchange?

At the Advertising Association’s LEAD conference in February, research into trust in advertising was revealed which should make all of us in advertising wince, says Tess Alps. But we can fix it.

The IPSOS Veracity Index revealed that marketing and advertising professionals are now trusted less than any other profession in the survey - including politicians. Blimey!

Keith Weed, the new AA President, quoted from Reach plc’s 2018 research showing that only 69% of people trust advertising and the AA’s own annual tracker had favourability towards advertising at only 25% - again, the lowest ever.

Undoubtedly, some recent issues have added poison to the well: the lack of regulation in political advertising, clearly abused during the Brexit campaigns, and the revelations about the breaches of data privacy in the Cambridge Analytica and similar cases have exacerbated the situation.

Maybe time will erase those memories. But, let’s be honest, the prospects for advertising aren’t looking great.

Thinkbox has been predicting some of these trends for several years but it’s depressing being a Cassandra-like figure, predicting impending disaster but being largely ignored. So, instead, I shall travel hopefully and suggest some action that the industry might like to take to get itself out of its current predicament, with a focus on TV.

People do value advertising

A good place to start is to remind ourselves of the role advertising plays in people’s lives. We know, from previous Advertising Association research, that advertising boosts the overall economy, generating £6 of GDP for every £1 spent on it.

The average person can’t be expected to appreciate that, but they do understand that advertising pays for or subsidises media and amenities that they value, from TV and radio to search and bus-stops.

People do also want to hear from responsible brands – about new products, new formulations or price-led offers. But they expect advertising to be trustworthy, proportionate, respectful, transparent and, ideally, enjoyable.

This is the foundation of the ‘fair exchange’ that advertising is built on. Once consumers start thinking that advertising is not worth the subsidy - because it’s harmful, misleading, intrusive, annoying or demeaning - then they start to adopt behaviours to avoid it and lose trust in it which damages its effectiveness.

The ad-free Spotify Premium now accounts for half of its listeners; 25% of the UK have installed online ad-blockers; over a million people have voluntarily supported the Guardian through membership or subscription; the growth of Subscription VOD in the US is, at least in part, driven by ad avoidance. People are learning it’s not that expensive to have quality media without ads.

Our industry’s leaders are not shying away from the issue. At LEAD, Keith Weed announced that there will be a white-paper, setting out agreed initiatives, presented at next week’s ISBA conference, following cross-industry discussions.

Karen Fraser, director of Credos, presented some excellent new insight at LEAD, conducted by Craft, which shines a light into why advertising is in such a pickle but with strong clues to what is needed to mend it. It confirmed that people do appreciate the many benefits that advertising brings them and believe it can be a force for social good, but the negatives currently outweigh the positives.

Karen summarised them as follows:

• Bombardment (repetition and obtrusiveness e.g. pop-ups)
• Sensitive sectors & vulnerable groups (e.g. alcohol, gambling, pay-day loans)
• Unhealthy advertising (HFSS)
• Intrusiveness (data and privacy e.g. retargeting, inappropriate personalisation)
• Suspicious techniques (lack of transparency e.g. native advertising, influencers)

Karen was at pains to say that, although you might think many of these problems emanate largely from online advertising, these issues affect all media. None of us is exempt and it would be folly to be complacent. TV advertising enjoys the highest levels of trust, many times higher than the next best medium, but, at only 42% this is too low.

l won’t elaborate further on those headings – you get it – but make sure you see the research for yourself. Instead, let’s consider what TV advertising specifically might do to address the challenges.

Self-imposed restraint

The broadcasters try to avoid any brand having the same ad broadcast more than once an hour on linear TV. But that doesn’t stop one sector dominating some programmes, as we see with gambling ads in live sport. And the dynamic insertion of ads in TV on-demand can occasionally lead to the same ad being repeated within one programme as programmatic algorithms seek to deliver frequency to an individual viewer.

The inbuilt repetition of sponsorship credits, when too few executions have been made, can feel tedious. We can sort out all those with better creativity and some self-imposed restraint; indeed, the gambling companies have already announced a voluntary ban on any ads in live sport, whistle to whistle.

TV technology will help

When it comes to sensitive sectors and HFSS products, advertising is a very weak tool to address the underlying problems. Better, surely, to tackle the root of the issue; legislate against exploitative interest rates and excessive bets, reformulate food products – Kellogg’s Coco Pops is no longer an HFSS product for instance – rather than deny informative advertising to people.

As TV becomes more data-rich, we are excited to see how technology will refine how and to whom TV advertising is delivered, whether to a shared set or to personal devices. Addressable linear TV advertising should be able to prevent ads for sensitive sectors being broadcast within homes containing vulnerable people or to people who choose not to receive certain types of ad. Crucially, this first party data will have been freely given, not inferred data scraped from their media behaviours.

Learning from the backlash coming from the indiscriminate way behavioural data has been used online, enormous care is being taken by TV platforms to use only data that people have volunteered, but the same respect must be shown when advertisers start to fuse their own data with TV data.

Programmatic technology offers much, but only if our intentions are good. At the moment, it is mostly being used to retarget annoyingly and to sell bottom of the pile online inventory, but it could be used to regulate frequency and recency if we chose to do so.

For some brands, ‘performance’ marketing is not the responsibility of the marketing team but the online trading team, who are chasing a click at any cost, and have no responsibility for the damage they are doing to the brand. But the same charge could be levelled at all activation media, including DRTV, where granular analysis is undertaken on the responses, but no-one bothers to find out how that activity is impacting the non-responders. Marketers with brand responsibility must take charge of all forms of communication.

Invest in creativity

The ‘suspicious techniques’ heading covers many dodgy and deceptive approaches from ‘influencers’ to ‘native’ advertising but they all share a disdain for the public and a belief that people have to be tricked into consuming ads. How depressing.

The most successful brands know that investing in creativity is the best way to encourage people, not just to tolerate their ads, but to actively enjoy them, to seek them out and to share them. Creatively awarded ads are proven to deliver many times more effectiveness, pound for pound, than an average ad.

Creativity delivers instant sales but also builds brand equity for the longer-term. Creativity is the best way to make people fall in love with advertising again. But creativity is hard; it needs champions and must be fought for - and paid for.

The current obsession with short-termism isn’t confined to brand marketing. Too many media owners and agencies have the attitude that they must, at any cost, maximise their income/profits for the next set of results or their IPO, with no regard for the problems they set up for the future. If we continue like this, we will end up with an industry none of us wants to work in.

Stephen Woodford, chief executive, Advertising Association, said: “Trust is at the top of our agenda this year and in the years ahead. The time has come for a collective effort, a true system change, to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of our industry for future generations of creative talent.”

I hope all marketers will withdraw their investments from media companies and agencies which keep adding poison to the well, because they are damaging all of us.

Respect, responsibility, transparency, creativity; these can restore trust and save us all if we really want them to.


Tess Alps is chair of Thinkbox, a Council member of the ASA and a member of WACL. In 2018 she was awarded the Mackintosh Medal in recognition of outstanding personal and public service to advertising.

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