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Monday, July 17, 2017

Advertisers: A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You!

The May/June 2017 issue of the Electronic Retailer, a publication for direct response advertisers, included the below article from ERSP Director Peter Marinello:

It’s hard not to wonder what the great Thomas Jefferson would make of today’s ongoing assault on truthful speech in contemporary society. It was, after all, our third president who was responsible for the concept of holding truth “to be self-evident” and who once noted that “honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” It’s a good bet that Jefferson—pretty much like all of us—would be exasperated with the reckless disregard of one of our most cherished principles: Providing our fellow man with truthful and accurate information.

While taking liberties with the truth is nothing new, the lack of accountability we have come to expect from purveyors of the falsehoods has become downright unsettling. At what point did we become so forgiving with our demand for the facts? Since when did we become immune to influencers not disclosing material information that is so pivotal to our thought processes? 

A few weeks ago, Time magazine presented us with one of its more disconcerting cover stories in recent memory, asking “Is the Truth Dead?” The story mused that at no time in our country’s history have we provided others such great latitude in their descriptions of factual circumstance. 

As someone who has worked in the world advertising self-regulation for over two decades, I recognize that I may be overly sensitive to the expectation of someone having, at a minimum, a reasonable basis for factual assertions that are intended to influence public decision-making. After all, it has long been the mantra of advertising self-regulation to ensure that product claims are properly supported and disseminated “truthfully and accurately” to consumers. 

So while I’m taken aback by the cavalier approach some people are taking toward their responsibility to provide reliable, straightforward, and factual information to their audiences and the low threshold of expectations we have afforded these speakers, I am heartened by a recent report that indicates an unlikely channel of expression is garnering increased trust among members of the public: advertising.

In a March 2017 survey by YouGov, an online polling company that provides comprehensive market intelligence on a range of industry sectors, internet users who see ads at least once a month were asked if they trust the advertising they see, read, or hear. According to the results, 61 percent of respondents 18 and older answered in the affirmative—an increase of 11 percentage points from three years ago, when half said they didn’t trust advertising. 

But the results didn’t stop there. In addition to finding increased trust in advertising, 72 percent of the survey respondents also indicated that “they would be more likely to say they feel the ads they encounter are ‘honest,’” which is 15 percent higher than the responses to the same question in 2014.

The results of the YouGov survey were surprising in light of historically low levels of trust expressed in surveys by Gallup. Its annual polls have indicated a marked level of diminished trust in many U.S. institutions including churches, banks, the press, and Congress over the past 10 years. Overall, the average confidence in institutions had fallen to 32 percent in 2016—down from 43 percent in 2004. Conversely, a high level of trust in advertising has trended slightly upward in each of the past three years and has stayed fairly constant over the past decade.

A study conducted by MarketingSherpa last October got even more granular with respect to consumer trust in advertising. According to results obtained from 2,400 respondents, almost eight out of 10 respondents said they trust print and television ads when making a purchase decision. However, the news wasn’t nearly as positive for digital and mobile channels, which were trusted by just 39 percent of respondents. 

What these numbers suggest is that amidst eroding trust in various institutions and professions across this great country, the peoples’ faith that advertisers and marketers are disseminating truthful information has hardly waned over the last few years and, if anything, has increased slightly. 

Before we begin celebrating and patting each other on the back, however, it’s hard to ignore that respondents still placed advertisers on the low end of the totem pole with respect to honesty—well below some vocations that are often more ethically suspect among consumers, including stockbrokers, senators and, yes, lawyers. Interestingly, members of Congress were listed as the least honest of all professionals. 

Although it would be wrong to conclude that in times of great societal consternation about the faith and belief in many of our cherished institutions that consumers are turning to advertising as a beacon of truthfulness and veracity, it is important to note that trust in advertising has remained unchanged. Further, as the public searches desperately to fill the void of honesty and integrity that that has been woefully lacking among our leaders in business and politics, an opportunity is presenting itself for those of an entrepreneurial spirit. 

Not many professions seize the moment like direct response advertisers do. So in these times of great uncertainty, we at the Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation Program (ERSP) call on the advertising industry to double down on self-regulation and join us in our neverending quest to reinforce consumer confidence in the messages you communicate to the public.